Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

People With No Country?

2-5-18

Edward Everett Hale wrote a short book, originally a magazine story, about a sailor who denounced the United States, was convicted of treason, and was sentenced to sail the seas thereafter for entire life, never allowed to step foot on American soil nor receive any news of the US from fellow sailors.

Gradually this Philip Nolan grew repentant, then homesick, finally desperate, for any news of his native country. In his final days he invited another sailor to his cabin, there to see flags and eagles and patriotic symbols painted on the walls. He died and was buried at sea, a “man without a country.”

Published in 1863, the tale is a message about loyalty, clearly a metaphor for the Civil War and the essential appreciation of patriotism. It also addresses the primal attraction we have for Identity. “Identity Politics” is a theme of our day – everything from joining clubs to trying to choose one’s sex midway through life. It is a very different thing than nationalism or even chauvinism. As Abe Lincoln said, about as alike as a chestnut horse is to a horse chestnut.

We choose names for our identities and loyalties, usually good tries, but usually insufficient.

President John F Kennedy, at the height of the Cold War, famously spoke in front of the recently constructed Berlin Wall, the city’s demarcation from the Communist East. Before an enthusiastic half-million people, he twice delivered a pledge of solidarity: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

There were a few problems with the stirring line, despite the audience’s raucous response. He spoke in his trademark Boston accent, a challenge to local English-speakers. He was prompted to pronounce “Ich” as “ish” – more Yiddish than German, causing some confusion about his intention. Despite subsequent historical revisionism, however, the crux of the speech’s reception was the identification with Berlin.

Europeans often name foods after cities. Frankfurters and Hamburgers and Wieners are the kinds that originated in Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Vienna. We can know where Limburger cheese and Bologna originated. French toast and English muffins are virtually unknown in France and England; but marketers knew the value of geographic identification. A popular pastry from Berlin is called by the locals a “Berliner.” Basically a jelly donut.

So, yes, John F Kennedy declared to half million people, the Soviet leaders, and the world in general, that he was a jelly donut. I think I mentioned that the crowd noisily erupted. As I said, revisionist historians have since disputed… what they cannot really dispute.

In a way, that story can unmask patriotic passions as sometimes being silly, or at least futile. But in the end, most of us still are proud of our backgrounds and our nations. Perhaps in fewer numbers, but many of us still get misty-eyed when the National Anthem is played or a veteran is laid to rest. For those who do not, shame on them. For athletes who ostentatiously dismiss the flag, more shame.

I have said I regard patriotism as a primal impulse, and basically one of self-protection, pride, and nurture. Like the difference between country and nation. In Europe, volk translates to more than a population – the family of fellow countrymen; the group with shared values and experiences. Similarly heimat is more than home or homeland or community. “Soul” and “soil” are more than cognates.

We don’t have such earnest but inchoate words in English, or in America. In our case, however, we inculcate – because we have inherited at great cost – values like Democratic Republic; free enterprise; equality of opportunities; freedom of religion, press, assembly, speech.

It is why a Swede, say, moving to, say, Argentina will always be called “that Swede down the street”; and an American in Paris will always be… an American in Paris; not a Frenchman. But – as current debates reinforce – immigrants and migrants are fairly soon called “Americans” after they arrive. And are so.

The Bible addresses this issue, because there are larger truths involved. We are spirits, intimately known to God while yet in the womb; and will live eternally according to Judgment and the Grace of God. That is, in this vale (valley) of tears, we are passing through for a moment of all eternity.

“We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace” (I Chronicles 29:15, NLT). “Sojourners” in some translations; “Pilgrims” in others. “Strangers” in all.

This world is not our home. We reside here awhile, and sometimes it seems all too real, and hard. Sometimes we fully experience, or occasionally have mere glimpses of, joy. I am not a cynic, but a reporter: it is useful to remember our “temporary status.” As Christians we have green cards, so to speak, because we are on the way to another place… a better place.

God creates a universe, and a wondrous world, and His family of children, to live a relatively few seconds in His eternal Forever? No thought is needed, and our heads would start hurting anyway. It pleases Him to design things this way. We pass from life to death to… life eternal. Somehow that seems like a good deal. Heaven will be our home, with mansions. “If it were not so, I would not have told you.”

God could have made us as jelly donuts, but He created us in His own image. He loves us passionately – enough to create us with free will; enough to have given us a “Get out of jail free” card in the form of His Son assuming our death sentences. Enough that, wherever we live or die, we are not people without a country.

+ + +

Click: The Sojourner’s Song

Saving You From Yourself

1-29-18

Any believer, whether casual or seasoned, whether a “baby Christian” or steeped in the faith, who does not have a “promise book” somewhere on the bookshelves, has not gone through a common stage of spiritual evolution. It is not necessary or requisite to have that book of life’s challenges and predictable crises, but it happens frequently among us. Arranged by category they are, with lists of comforting Bible verses, also instruction and encouragement.

Useful things, these promise books. I am in no way minimizing their value. If you don’t have one, get one; there are many you can find. A lot of them are pocket-size, to keep at the ready.

But. After a while their verses will make their way into your memory, at least as the Kingdom Principles of God – the uniform and unified major themes of scripture. The Bible says that we are to know the intentions of the Lord, and “hide them in our hearts.” Consistent study of the Bible itself results in this.

Perhaps the most dog-eared pages in those Promise Books are where the categories address Approaching God; Lifting Petitions and Requests; How to Receive; and Answers to Prayer.

There are verses in the Bible that we often distort. We presume when we should not. Devout believers in solitary prayer closets can do this, just as earnest televangelists speaking to thousands in arenas sometimes do too. “Say to the mountain, be thou moved”… “the faith of a mustard seed”… “greater works you will do”… you must know the verses.

Are they not true? Yes, they are true – God does not lie and can not lie.

However, the whole of scripture also reminds us that Jesus wept on occasion; that He left towns because the level of unbelief prevented even His miracles from being manifested. So… how to proceed? How to appreciate the context of verses?

We must be careful not to treat Promise Books like Wish Lists. Lifting the burdens of your heart to the Lord should not take the form of a shopping list. Even mature Christians can confuse requests with demands.

When you pray, believing, the first beliefs must be in the Sovereignty of God; of His love; and a trust in His will for our loves.

This brings us to an essential element of true faith. Lest I sound like like a skeptic in this essay, I once was persuaded by the “name it and claim it” variety of faith. I saw miracles, yes, and experienced some. My wife prayed healing for her failing heart, and was miraculously healed… by a transplant. And we gave God the glory. Two years later she was diagnosed with cancer, and she submitted to an operation… until the doctors confessed to one of those “we can’t explain it” situations. All traces of the cancer were gone. Answer to a largely unspoken prayer.

That God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform is a non-Bible verse that everyone knows; and is true. It is also true – and our faith is not weak when we accept it – that when God answers prayer, sometimes the answer is No. Sometimes the answer is delayed. Sometimes the answer is different than we hope (or demand).

But all the time the answers remind us that God is God.

It is He who hath made us; and not we ourselves. The same with prayer: we need to remember that when we pray in spirit and in truth – that is, in genuine trust – the Holy Spirit inhabits our prayers. In fact, the Bible assures us that when we are confused, weak, lacking confidence, the Spirit takes over! The Spirit will groan, if necessary, before the Throne of God, with the desires of our hearts.

And that principle is what should save us from ourselves, so not to approach God unworthily.

We know our desires, and want to lift them to God.

But He knows our needs, and will always meet them.

Our desires and our needs are two very different things. We cannot always know them… and we very often confuse them. God knows them. Trusting in His lovingkindness, sublimating our own view of things, is when Faith acquires meaning in our lives.

God reads our hearts anyway, so we don’t need prayers to “make points” with Him. Pray believing… pray trusting Him… and pray knowing that His whole book is full of those Promises.

He knows how to keep them.

+ + +

Click: I Know Who Holds Tomorrow

That’s Life

1-22-18

There is a verse in James that admonished us to be “doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” The Bible reminds us often that God sees all we do; and so do the “Heavenly cloud of witness” of Hebrews 11. Often we might be tempted to wear two hats – the secular (when we argue about politics) and the sacred (when we forgive all, forget all).

That is shameful. We all live at the intersection of Sacred and Secular. There is no forwarding address.

I offer this on Celebration of Life week, Sanctity of Life Sunday.

When the mists, or smoke, of current controversies are swept away, I believe the world will see abortion – the act, the arguments, the very concept – in a different light. Most likely the “old” light, history’s traditional attitude. I pray.

Of course, the attitudes of various societies have been mutable, little different than any stands on any controversy. Honestly, there has not been a straight line in manners and morals on monogamous marriage, infant sacrifice, slavery, the role of women, personal freedom and liberty, democracy, even monotheism until the Revealed God revealed Himself fully.

Despite infant sacrifice, with its essentially different set of foundations, abortion is an act that mostly has been regarded as anathema at all times and in all places. By whole societies and by single women. Its sanction, and its approval, have always been exceptions. Mostly it is regarded as something to be discouraged because of the implicit recognition that it is horrible, contrary to human impulses.

Until our generation.

The anguish and severe challenges presented by unplanned, unwanted pregnancies are significant. They represent dilemmas that are endemic to the human family, and – no matter how much abortion might be outlawed – they will take place. To recognize this fact is not to approve of it. But to accept it as the price of a community, a society, maintaining consistent standards and trying to codify a moral code, is, well, the price to pay.

A lot of the world preceded the US, or closely followed us, in the legalization of abortion. Today, we have been reminded this week, we “surpass” most of the world in providing free abortion services… and we are among the few human-rights garden spots like North Korea and China that allow late-term abortions, killing babies otherwise viable outside the womb.

We should not need numbers like almost 60-million American abortions since Roe vs Wade… nor photos of aborted babies… nor facts like the bigoted Margaret Sanger (Planned Parenthood founder) encouraging abortions in the black and brown communities especially… to come face-to-face with the horror of abortion.

Fifteen years ago I interviewed Norma McCorvey, the “Roe” of Roe vs Wade, who had regretted her manipulation, reversed her views, and became a Christian. Pro-Life. Her testimony confirmed my views, but did not change them. That happened earlier; for a long time I was indifferent to the issue, and saw it as more a matter of convenience than morality. I even took that point of view in public, and now am conscious of blood on my hands.

But one does not have to trade Pragmatism for Christianity to realize that abortion is murder.

Why is America so militant, now, about abortion? Why is it a litmus test in broad swaths of society – why does the Democrat Party, for instance, forbid convention speakers and candidate endorsements to “pro-life” people?

I return to looking forward to the mists parting. Whether we go deeper into self-indulgence, or return to traditional values, abortion WILL be the litmus test. One does not have to abandon feminism, or denigrate women, to oppose abortion. The Big Lie that women are pro-choice and men want disposable women and babies, is belied by the profile of marchers at Pro-Life rallies; by fervent advocates I have met; by counselors (like Pam Stenzel, a friend from Grand Rapids MI) who speaks to kids about pre-marital sex – herself a product of a rape, whose mother decided against aborting her at the last moment.

If you don’t like being a woman who is “wired” to bear babies, don’t conceive. You cannot reverse nature. A lot of times it stinks to be a man, but, whatever. People have intimidated the culture to an extent; but they cannot reverse nature. They can tinker with the plumbing, but we still are men and women. Period; no pun intended.

Therefore, abortion, as a litmus-test, is a symbol. It is the result, not a cause, of America having become a Culture of Death. Abortion, homosexuality, the decline of marriage, all are symptoms of impulses that resist life and the advancement of the species – which of course sounds clinical and impersonal. But the truth is VERY personal. We respect life, or we don’t.

And the debate continues, often distracted by questions of a once-in-a-decade death sentence, or war in faraway places. Those arguments are healthy; but in the meantime, many of us CAN do something about the Culture of Death in our midst.

When we have become desensitized to death, we have become desensitized to life.

There is a common impulse behind the totalitarian lockstep attitude some people have toward abortion. It is common to militant homosexuality, to gender-bending, to newfound “rights,” to sex-change operations. To the redefinition of “marriage,” not to welcome legal precision, but to make it socially meaningless. To the ubiquity of Political Correctness. The apparent anarchy of PC attitudes is really the New Religion – the replacement of God.

We are witnessing – and, God help us, enabling – the slow death of God… in the way that Nietzsche really meant his phrase: when God become irrelevant in a society, He IS dead to its people. God is not really dead, of course: if you listen quietly you can hear Him weeping.

And those other sounds, if you listen closer, whether from unmarked graves or hospital dumpsters, are the cries of millions and millions of babies.

+ + +

Click: Psalm 139 – Jesus Loves Me

Time and Chance Happeneth To All

1-15-18

Two good friends this week recounted some tough circumstances in their lives. Who among us does not have rough patches? The answer is None.

The difference between us, at these times, is how we react. My two friends each said that things are in God’s hands; that the Lord has a purpose. I pray that most people who say such things really have deep-seated trust and faith, as my friends do. But who among us does not occasionally fall back on such sayings as… sayings?

God forbid that we are not serious about discerning – and seeking – God’s will in hard times. And good times, too, no less!

I believe we have free will, and we all might believe that actions have consequences. Yet God orders our steps. A contradiction? Not at all. When we seek His will, God often answers in ways that are mysterious to us… and very often contrary to the shopping-list of demands that our prayers must sometimes look like to Him.

It is an essential element of faith, I think, that even if we let ourselves be virtual leaves on the stream of life, sometimes, God moves us, slows us, speeds us, and directs us – in spite of ourselves, sometimes, according to His will. If we love God, have faith, and accept the calling to His purposes.

Have you ever looked back on your life and realized how radically different things would be – family, profession, homes – if this, or that, had not happened?

I think of my dear daughter Emily, who lives in Northern Ireland now. When she was barely 10, missionaries visited our little church and told of their work in Central American villages. She was mightily affected, full of emotion, and dedicated her life, young Christian as she was, to work in the missions field, and serving Christ. Before, during, and after her college years, she joined missions trips to Mexico and Russia and Northern Ireland.

She had a heart for the hate-filled streets of Derry (scenes of the bloody “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants through the years) and returned there, for a longer stay. During that posting she made friends, fell in love with a guy from the local church, Norman. They married and attended Bible College together in Dublin, and have served in Ireland and Northern Ireland. And have “been fruitful and multiplied,” making this Papa proud of two grandchildren.

Ah! What if we, 25 years ago in Pennsylvania, had joined another church, or gone away the Sunday those missionaries visited? Would Emily have received that vision, found that passion? What if she had attended a different college here… or not made friends, when we lived in California, with our friend Paula who preceded her in that Northern Ireland missions program?

What if? What if?

Perhaps, when we think of these life-threads as we all can. God would have us wind up in the same places, but by different routes! More likely, it seems to me, we could be in different places doing different things. (I hate to think, as a father, that I would not have the children with whom God did bless me!)

This is not an essay, or ramblings, about the randomness of life: just the opposite!

As Christians we must rejoice in the fact that we are God’s; it is He who has made us and not we ourselves. We do not float through our allotted time willy-nilly, trying to remember to pray that we luck out in places we find ourselves. Rather we should earnestly pray to see God’s hand in our lives’ events… we must bathe every decision in prayer to seek His will (God promises never to leaves such prayers unanswered)… we must be patient to hear His voice and His leading… and we must pray for spiritual discernment to guard against crowding out His answers with our desires.

A current meme among Christians these days is, “It’s a God thing.” That phrase is used to explain “good” things, dismiss “bad” things, and is mantra for many occurrences in between. Some things ARE God things, yes. But a lot of things are also Satan-things; us-things; even dumb-things. We must learn to anticipate beforehand and discern afterwards.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 says that “Time and chance happeneth to all.” Let us not be fooled that God was explaining the randomness of life. Rather that we, His children, all have the same challenges; that we all are in the same boat. Or are the same leaves in the same stream of His care.

BUT. Just as important. God’s streams God’s streams have twists and turns and little spots where the water swirls unexpectedly. My way of saying that we need to be conscious of more than where we are taken, and what affects us. Just as often – in face, frequently – YOU might be the person, that random friend, a “missionary” telling a tale, even a stranger leaving an impression on someone. A daughter, a neighbor, a stranger, and perhaps the littlest word or action can wind up changing that person’s life.

Such things, indeed, happeneth to all.

+ + +

Please, please, listen to this moving song about this very subject. By Ray Boltz.

Click: Thank You For Giving To the Lord

Don’t Mess With Mr In-Between

1-1-18

There is a pop-music classic, and American show tune, that has been covered by every great singer, at least of the Jazz Age. Written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, and its first recording by Mercer – a terrific vocalist whose own singing has been neglected through the years – it has been a hit for many artists.

“You’ve Got to Accentuate the Positive” is sometimes spelled with the song’s lilting “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” but often referred to by its catch phrase, “Don’t Mess with Mister In-Between.” From a 1940s musical, the lyrics were inspired by, and made reference to, a revival sermon:

Gather ’round me, everybody – Gather ’round me while I’m preachin’, Feel a sermon comin’ on me. The topic will be sin and that’s what I’m against. If you wanna hear my story, Then settle back and just sit tight , while I start reviewin’
The attitude of doin’ right.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, And latch on to the affirmative! Don’t mess with Mister In-Between…

Performed in a variety of styles, many Americans today are familiar with it, and it lives in playlists and even commercials. It was background music in the movie L.A. Confidential, and Jerry Lee Lewis frequently uses the phrase – perhaps preaching to himself – in soliloquies at the piano. Its message is deeper than the lyrics of many show tunes, and has applications for revival congregations, moviegoers, and anyone with ears to hear.

Is it grist for a New Years essay? Like any good gospel message, its points are pertinent any day of the year – just as Christmas and Easter sermons ought to be re-visited in seasons apart from those holidays’ traditional festivals.

But if this is a time of year when we all look backward, look forward, and make resolutions (even if, like many promises and laws, they are made to be broken), then it is time indeed to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative… but most importantly, look out for Mr In-Between.

Why should Mr In-Between be avoided?

Jesus Himself provides the obvious answer – obvious and usually ignored or avoided by Christians – speaking to John in the Book of Revelation: And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

This advice is harsh because it cuts to the core of our souls’ sincerity, our position before God. We cannot be lukewarm about spiritual things!

Either God exists, or He does not.

Either Jesus is His Son, and believing in Him, confessing our sins, leads to forgiveness and eternal life, or not.

Either there is a Heaven and Hell, or there is not. Either Jesus is the only way to achieve salvation and eternal security, as He said, or not.

Don’t mess with In-Between. These things cannot be almost true; or mostly true. It’s like being almost pregnant. In the Book of Acts, Chapter 26, Paul’s appearance before King Agrippa in Rome is recorded. He defends himself against charges of the Jews; he relates his own persecution of Christians; his conversion; and his evangelism, the miracles he had seen; and the powerful presence of Christ in his new life.

Agrippa, listening and absorbing all this, admits to Paul that he was “almost persuaded” to become a Christian. This was meant as a compliment to Paul’s testimony.

But a preacher once said that to be “almost” persuaded is to be not persuaded at all; to be “almost” saved is the same as being totally lost. In these times we all seem to seek for compromise… the Golden Mean… the middle position, to satisfy everyone.

But Jesus would have us hot or cold, not lukewarm. To compromise with evil is to be evil. He will spit us out!

The American hymnodist Philip P Bliss heard a Dwight L Moody sermon on this subject, and wrote one of the powerful exegetical songs of the American church: Almost Persuaded.

At New Year, it is a good time to examine where we stand with God… with ourselves, our standing in Eternity. To be almost persuaded is to be certainly nothing. We fool neither ourselves nor our God. Be hot or cold – one of them! Choose today; do not be lukewarm in life. Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.

+ + +

Click: Almost Persuaded

I Am Sorry… If You Are Offended

11-20-17

This is something of a silly season. These days there is a revolving-door of silliness, actually – fads and fancies of the moment; ever-changing manners and mores.

I am referring to the spate of sex scandals. They are not silly in themselves: I think harassment is deadly serious; and rape should be ranked with murder by our justice system.

What is silly – it is difficult to find a better term – is that this issue is “new.” That people are surprised by the surprises. That anyone pretends that it was not common knowledge that this went on in our culture before a few months ago. It has been a virtual cliché, even the stuff of jokes – by men and women alike – that there were such things as “casting couches,” “favors for promotions,” “indiscretions.”

It is not a surprise but common knowledge that Hollywood producers, Washington politicians, all sorts of celebrities “slept around”; but, more, wielded power through, by, and for sex. The list was long even before Weinstein and the deluge of politicians, actors, and big-shots clogging the headlines lately.

Did President Kennedy’s reputation suffer because of the common knowledge of his affairs? I think he was more often secretly admired by many. Alfred Hitchcock? I think people laugh at the twisted stories. Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton? It depends on your political affiliation, let’s be honest; the same with Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Anthony Weiner, Al Franken.

So this is not new, but reports proliferate as does the selective outrage. As I recently have written, it would be a good thing… if the outrage were to last (not the incidents). I am not so naive to think that the human race will ever be free of dalliances and flirtation, sexual favors and even adultery. But to be frank – not scriptural – about this, a well-functioning and even largely moral society operates on the pragmatic admission that the Big H happens. Hypocrisy. Do I condone it? – that society preaches one way and lives another? Of course not, but on this side of Heaven, the alternative is outright licentiousness.

Which we are near now.

I am convinced of a couple things I have not heard discussed, virtually ever. One is that a large percentage of guys who flaunt their appeal and drape blondes on their arms, usually look gay: they try too hard. Just a theory (think of Hugh Hefner, Exhibit A).

Another theory is that many men who get “caught” in affairs often resemble toads. I am thinking of Newt Gingrich and Roger Ailes and Anthony Weiner and Harvey Weinstein. My theory is that “getting caught” is less important to them than announcing to the world, “Look at me! Women actually want me!” They are willing to endure opprobrium.

A third observation surely is less talked about, but I believe to be true – that as a rule, women are as prone (sorry) as men to seek affairs and use sexuality as a tool, if not a weapon. Mitigating details arise from the relative physical sizes and strengths, and society’s traditional roles, of men and women. But from “attraction” (cosmetics for women; grooming for men; fashion for both) to outright aggressiveness, we are talking about motivations common to all. Maybe not predation, but something of a two-way street. Nature’s old “dance.”

All of which means what? NOT that we should forgive these social horrors as in the past, or ignore them even more; no. It DOES mean that – yes, just as the Bible commands – we should all commit to respecting others. We cannot do that until we all respect ourselves more. And we cannot do that until we all respect the Word of God.

People can hide affairs, sometimes, but they cannot hide from God’s Word.

Another observation: all these sex scandals are really not about sex. Certainly not about love; nor about loneliness or rejection. Excuse me, but [fill in the blank of the rats’ names in the news] often have spouses of evident attractiveness; or a string of such spouses. OR, to be vulgar, in today’s America, they easily can rent sex. To be trashier, they can crawl around alleys and back streets for it.

But I believe most of these people, when you think of how they act, actually desire to be caught. Really? Sure: evangelists subconsciously invite judgment; media stars live to flaunt.

To continue on the Biblical track, and since I have characterized the sexual motivation as secondary, I believe the real sin is that of PRIDE. Predators want to exercise power… they “do” it because they “can”… they derive pleasure from intimidating people. Otherwise self-preservation, if not morality, would determine their actions.

Finally, I have taken notice of all the mea culpas, apologies, denials, excuses, reasons, deflections, and confessions from the predators and their defenders.

You have heard them too. The 21st century’s default apologies – “I am sorry IF I offended someone.” “I really don’t remember.” “I was drunk.” “I agree, it sounds horrible.” “I will get therapy.” And so forth.

You know what we don’t hear? If it is a secular person – “Yes, back then I was a jerk, and in may ways a horrible person. But I have turned my life around, and apologize to the victim, my family, my followers. There were reasons… but no excuses. However, I am a changed person. All this was my fault, and I will be different.” Someone like, say, Sen. Al Franken could say this, and gain respect, perhaps forgiveness. But they never do!

And why can’t Christians – let us say Judge Roy Moore IF he is guilty of the charges, which I am not presuming; but people in his position – say, “There was a time I sinned and made bad choices. Like all of us. But unlike all of us, I have repented; I have been redeemed; I walk with God now as best I can. No excuses; I sinned. But for years I have been a new creature in Christ.” But they never do!

Those are statements we never hear, at press conferences that are never convened.

I am not one to cast stones, believe me, but I search for ways that society can cleanse itself – rather I want to express God’s desires and commands in new ways to new people. That should be the work of all Christ-followers.

If the problem in contemporary life, at this moment, is more Pride than Sex, so is the unfortunate response of too many people today Arrogance and not Humility.

There is too much preying, and not enough praying.

+ + +

Click: Jesus, Take a Hold

The New Puritanism

11-13-17

Curioser and curioser.

Usually I cite the Bible here; often Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln. Today it is Alice’s turn, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And I am well aware that there are few new things under the sun, yet things surprise us every week.

The revelations of sexual advances and disgusting behavior are new… yet their existence surely is not. Few people are, or should be, shocked that Hollywood producers and powerful executives, politicians, and bosses have acted this way. In fact it is almost a cliché – one could say a stale stereotype from am unimaginative movie script – that women have had to deal with disgusting suggestions, “casting couches,” and threats of blackballed careers. An afternoon’s work for Harvey Weinstein, by reports at least.

We all knew it, not only the women under pressure. Men occasionally felt bizarre pressures, too – not always sexual, but of the “dirty little secret” varieties, for instance the soft pressure of racial bias and class preference. Homosexuals have been pressured negatively and sometimes favored, as have people of political persuasions.

Racial and sexual injustice are at the forefront these days, and the major surprise to me is that people are acting surprised. For years it was common talk – not whispers – that directors like Alfred Hitchcock were perverts who demanded favors; in politics, Bill Clinton; in sports, Jerry Sandusky… and so on.

I have been on the periphery of some of the players in the Clinton scandals. Kathleen Willey (attacked by Bill in the White House the same day her husband committed suicide) bears emotional scars. I know Lucianne Goldberg, who convinced Linda Tripp to convince Monica Lewinsky to record Pres. Clinton’s phone messages and to keep the infamous blue dress. And 21 years ago I interviewed Gennifer Flowers, who related that Bill Clinton, in pillow talk when she was his mistress, laughed about Hillary having more girl friends than he did.

Seemingly overnight, the “establishments” of Hollywood and the media regard it all as taboo, even when charges are unsubstantiated (as are, at this writing., the accusations against a US Senate candidate). The anomaly is that people are suddenly opposed to sexual predation, not that they are surprised by it. Yesterday an accepted joke, today an offense, tomorrow anathema.

If we sniff a bit of inconsistency, I do not demand that society be consistent! Sometimes we awaken to harmful things, to bad behavior, to sin. The unfortunate pattern in social mores is that what offends people one bright day… they are often inured to in days subsequent. God forbid it will be that way with sexual predators and gross insensitively of the kinds in recent headlines.

The human race has changed its attitude toward slavery, for instance – except when it hasn’t. The public attitudes might be different, but the practice around the world is still with us.

The human race has changed its attitude toward wanton slaughter of animals – except human animals. War, oppression, trafficking, ethnic cleansing, euthanasia, and abortion are rampant.

The human race has changed its attitude toward freedom of expression – largely when threatened by governments; but seemingly comfortable when “soft” censorship exists by Big Media, news monopolies, internet moguls, and dictators of Political Correctness.

I can quote Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Law of Compensation – things get better here, and worse there. Healthier in some ways; toxic in others. Maybe that is how life works.

Let us not be cynical, however. We should pray that what recent societies called Puritanical attitudes – courtesy between the sexes; probity; common respect – might not be fads but a moral palliative, a New Normal.

And while we are praying… if the grosser aspects of the Sexual Revolution might become extinct, if predators might become an endangered species, is it too much to add items to our prayer lists?

Human trafficking? The drug culture? Persecution of Christians and minorities? Child abuse, spousal abuse? Divorce?

Readers of the future will look back on this essay and know, as we cannot, whether the New Puritanism, at least as it concerns Hollywood and Celebrity sexual predators, is a tool for the self-righteous to attack others, or is the beginning of a return to civility and respect, manners and solid social standards. As Emerson might observe, while we conquer physical diseases, we are infected by moral blight. Epidemics.

Writers like H L Mencken and Ralph Barton Perry almost a century ago decried the Puritan strain in the American culture, but such manifestations as Prohibition were purged. There were no crippling effects on the onward march of society. When corrections need correction, they are corrected. When things needing correction are ignored or enjoy benign neglect – enabled, really – they fester. And we die.

+ + +

The question, ultimately, is a personal question, because we are the building-blocks of society. And it concerns our hearts, not our political affiliations or backgrounds or economic status. Bennie Tripplett of the Church of God wrote a gospel song made famous by the Blackwood Brothers:

Click: How About Your Heart

We Are All Vets. Some Have Not Served Yet.

11-6-17

George Santayana famously said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. A cartoon-meme popping up on the web these days has an old guy reflecting that those who DO know history are doomed to watch other people repeat the mistakes.

That IS a danger. Rather, it is a reality. We see it around us, every day.

Without delving into whether this is unprecedented or one of history’s tragic cycles is open to question, but ultimately the question is silly – in the face of reality. In this world, today, it surely seems that a large portion of humankind has gone mad. We have rejected in many ways the concept of Absolute Truth, the possibility of its existence, and the benefits of seeking to know it. History’s masses, let us say in the West, often suffered as a lot in life. However they usually believed in improvement; in advancement; in better things and better days. They believed in themselves, in leaders they respected… in God.

The world, in turning inward instead of outward, living for today without regard to an afterlife, abandoning standards that nurtured their ancestors, of course will reflect disharmony and chaos. Art imitates life, after all (what Plato called “Mimesis”). This should worry us very, very much about the state of things ‘round about us. This world is not one politician or one new fad or one hangover away from righting ourselves. We fool ourselves when we think so. And meanwhile we are diverted by bread-and-circus movies and sports and TV shows and celebrity orgies…

Never since the Flood has humankind, over the face of the earth and not in isolated pockets, rejected Truth and Purity in such determined ways.

So, we fight. We fight as individuals, we fight as nations – or, we give in as individuals and as nations. This truth reflects a crisis of the age, and the great challenge of our time. It has always been our portion to fight – “Life is real; life is earnest,” Longfellow wrote:

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, Is our destined end or way; But to act, that each tomorrow Find us farther than today.

In the world’s broad field of battle, In the bivouac of Life, Be not like dumb, driven cattle! Be a hero in the strife!

Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time.

About these fights as individuals and as nations, Theodore Roosevelt reminded us that it is beyond our choosing to participate in our fate. Our only choice is whether we play our parts “well or ill.”

For more than a generation America has had a volunteer military. I cannot imagine American society, our country’s youth, ever returning to a military draft. To have to interrupt (or fulfill) your life’s path by having to serve in one of the military branches? Frankly, I wonder even if America were attacked whether the spirit of service and sacrifice, across the population, would exist again as in the past. I wonder, further, that even if there were universal social-work service for one, two, or four years whether American youth would comply.

We have compartmentalized military service. In an intellectual manner we have come to treat the military as slaves. We “thank them for their service,” yet keep our hands clean of their work; the sacrifices; the threats; the separation, injuries, deaths; the stress and trauma. At the same time, sadly, we also separate ourselves from the glory of service, the thrill of victories and fights well fought, and the pride of wearing those uniforms.

That is a tragedy. Unfair to the servicemen and women; robbing the rest of the population of necessary components of healthy souls.

In these days of “advanced warfare techniques” (a sanitized term for more efficient means of maiming and killing) it is almost beyond comprehension how men and women enlist – and often re-enlist, and volunteer for repeated tours – knowingly assuming the collateral “oncoming” of separated families, variable support from the System, oftentime insufficient medical and psychological care as veterans.

We cannot admire these servants enough. Even if we dissent from foreign policies, overseas involvements, controversial missions and nation-building… we must stand in awe and gratitude to the people who serve.

And. For those of us “at home,” we cannot forget that we serve too. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines do our bidding in faraway places. Which makes it easier to be seduced by the feeling that all our battles are being waged by others. But we, all of us, have battles too, every day.

We must fight for our souls, against evil. We fight for our families, against all manners of threats. We fight for our culture, against corruption. We fight for our civilization, against enemies seen and unseen. We fight for our God, against the devil and all his ways, and for the Kingdom that is to come.

Or… we should.

If we don’t fight these battles, we surely will be subsumed.

On Veterans’ Day let us honor those who have served… and let us re-enlist, the rest of us, for the battles of life. Sooner or later, we too will be counted as veterans of those good fights.

+ + +

Click: Gone Home

Empty Nesters

8-28-17

It is that time of year again. What time? End of summer? Labor Day? Back to school… off to school… off to military service? Well, yes; but also the time of year I think again about that season when kids leave home.

A friend and I have been talking about the situation generally known as the Empty Nest. In popular parlance, it means when kids go off to school… and some parents feel pretty darn sad on the first day of kindergarten, much less college, a job or the service, or marriage.

I was always a little upset that when my three kids first ran to their school buses at the commencement of their school lives… and that they all climbed aboard cheerily. No looks back; no tears. Except mine. Oh, well, merciful for them.

And there ARE different varieties of empty nests. My friend and I compared notes and agreed that the phrase is more appropriate when used when the home is (especially) empty after the death of a spouse. Or when a disagreement has given separation a new meaning: “Apartment” is not simply a place you live; “loneliness” is far different than being alone.

But just as the sadness we feel at the death of someone close is essentially a selfish impulse – not negative, just self-ish – so is the Empty Nest not always a bad thing.

Don’t get me wrong: it can feel bad, and we can hurt. Very much. Ultimately, however, with children, we ought to remember that we have reared them precisely to spread their wings… which means, to fly. Away. Usually it is amicable, thank God; and close families grow closer, somehow, by multiplying.

When separation is not amicable, however, barring ugly or inexplicable situations, even that is part of life, and family members must trust God, and trust the seeds of proper rearing. Parents, trust your children, and those “seeds”; Children, trust God, and believe in answered prayer. God’s language is recorded in teardrops.

I think – among many, many examples that come to mind – of a dear friend, a Monday Ministry reader in Kansas who had precious Christian relationships with two of her children; saw those relationships, at different times, shatter in rebellion. But today she enjoys better-than-ever loving relationships with each. Answered (multitudes of) prayer; God’s Grace.

Have I strayed from my subject? Yes, but only to a degree. I think of Empty Nests at this time of year and remember a song I heard before my eldest started high school – but I knew it would make me sad when she left for college. Well. All three children have started high school, graduated from college, and two have families of their own. Yet the song, about a child leaving home, still tugs.

I am not claiming that these thoughts, or any here today, are exclusive to me; or to either of my friends here cited. No, these thoughts are about the most elemental of human emotions… and why I can claim that even the seemingly unpleasant can be “good” in life’s schema.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 reminds us that The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.

Time and chance happeneth to us all.

These are the words of the song I remember each year, “Letting Go” (the music video follows):

She’ll take the painting in the hallway, The one she did in junior high. And that old lamp up in the attic, She’ll need some light to study by.

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day. She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.

Oh, letting go… There’s nothing in the way now. Letting go: there’s room enough to fly. And even though she’s spent her whole life waiting… It’s never easy letting go.

Mother sits down at the table; So many things she’d like to do – Spend more time out in the garden, Now she can get those books read too.

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day. She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.

Oh, letting go… There’s nothing in the way now. Letting go: there’s room enough to fly. And even though she’s spent her whole life waiting… It’s never easy letting go.

+ + +

Click: Letting Go

The Matter of Unanswered Prayers

8-7-17

The sweetest things you will ever hear from Christians might be “prayer reports,” testimonies, shared experiences of answered prayer – sometimes accounts of miracles, breakthroughs, heavenly surprises. Even (in a phrase you hear a lot these days) that something has been a “God thing.”

I am not here to question whether God answers prayers. He has answered prayers that I have lifted with an anguished heart; the same with family members and friends. We have witnessed miracles.

I am one hundred per cent certain that God answers prayers. Let the skeptics be in no doubt. God promises that He will do so, and He delivers. Many times the Bible cites it in great specificity, for instance that “The fervent prayer of a righteous person avails much.” God does not lie. He cannot.

But His children – you and me – are flawed. Even after we are saved, we make mistakes and suffer from misunderstandings. Naturally! Not even the angels know all, and certainly cannot answer prayers. Poor things, they can praise, but cannot pray. That is among the attributes that make us different from angels, and special in God’s eyes.

No matter how favored, we are not little Gods. We must be “imitators of Christ” the best we can; we must seek guidance, which is one reason the Holy Spirit was sent to Earth when Jesus ascended; and we must pray. “At all times and in all places.”

Too many Christians – well-meaning, mostly, bless our hearts – believe that prayers will be answered according to our desires. Yes, yes… according to His will; but we misinterpret being “in His will.” There are preachers who teach that it is God’s will to answer our prayers as we pray them, and imply that our faith is weak when “answers don’t come.”

There are pastors who quote (as a promise of God) “mountain, be thou removed,” but have caused no earthquakes or tremors themselves. Or precious few metaphorical mountains, by the way.

There are leaders who pray among their audiences for healing, yet they wear glasses and have progressively slower steps, themselves, in their lives.

But. God answers prayer. All the time.

Except for prayers offered as insincere shows, or with unworthy knowledge of the gospel, God hears our prayers, and answers them. God promises that He will, and He delivers, as a wise man once said (whoops, that was me, a little bit earlier).

My point, though, is deadly serious, because we frequently rob ourselves of blessings. I am trying to encourage faith, not cast doubt.

God is not an errand boy, and prayer is not a magic wand.

Try to think of all the prayers you have prayed for things you want… not things you need.

If we truly trust God, in all His wisdom and love, why are we dissatisfied (even quietly, too often, discouraged) when “nothing seems to have changed?

God is a sovereign God, who loves us. Can we not understand that sometimes the answer is “No”? Sometimes His reply is “Not now.” Sometimes He says “That will be bad for you, trust Me.” Sometimes He tries to remind us that His ways are not our ways. Sometimes – He knows – our faith needs to be strengthened, and sometimes that comes through trials, further prayer, and even chastisement. (The Bible says that God exercises that only on those whom He loves. Take heart.)

How often do circumstances like a job or a relationship or finances seem “right” to desire? And our prayers about them can be summed up like: “This is clear to me, God – can’t you see it?” I have a suspicion He is seldom moved by a recitation of our deeds; and maybe less so by a list of promises we make… if the prayer is answered the way we want.

I know it is hard to operate on these truths. I have scars on my soul from the times I have come to this understanding only slowly and often kicking. However, true faith – a stronger, healthier faith – can come from dealing worthily with what we used to call unanswered prayer. All together now: “What we USED TO CALL unanswered prayer.”

Our faith will grow when we pray believing. Believing that God hears our prayers. Believing that God answers our prayers, always. And believing that in His loving care it is HIS answer, not ours, that will be our path forward.

As hard as it seems, we must learn to praise God when it is clear that OUR script was not followed by Him… but that He is the Master, the “Author Of All Creation.”

Listen, I know that prayer is a mystery. The Bible keeps us on our toes, right? Should we pray for something once, trusting? Should we pray without ceasing? Do we accept His will, but stay ready to be startled by an “answer” when we least expect it?

Yes, yes, and yes. But that is when prayer is a conversation, not a message to be left on God’s answering machine. Keep talking… and keep listening.
+ + +

In 1887 at a Dwight L Moody revival, a man stepped forward and said that he did not quite understand the gospel message, but he decided to trust God and obey God. One of the musicians, Daniel Towner, took those words and sent them to hymnodist John H Sammis. The man’s name has been lost to history – yet his transparent honesty and declaration has touched more souls since then, than have many preachers, because of the song that resulted.

Click: Trust and Obey

Mere Christianity, That Unspeakable Burden

7-31-17

I recently returned from two weeks in Ireland, a fact that might be wearying “news” to my readers and correspondents, but I am one of those people who experience new things, or visit a place for the first time, and come away with delight, enthusiasms, and a desire to share. (For instance, I invariably return from overseas and try to replicate dishes or cuisine methods in my own kitchen. This week I made fish and chips – with major variations – having been not tired of them but challenged.)

All of which is a justification for one more Irish reference.

There were many coincidences and random discoveries while traversing the Emerald Isle. To digress again, briefly, the joy – and hallmark – of a seasoned traveler is to program your itinerary, and your mind, in such ways that “coincidences” and “discoveries” will meet you at almost every turn.

Near the end of the trip, having circumtraversed the island’s two countries, we spent a night in the delightful Old Inn at Crawfordsburn in Bangor, County Down, outside Belfast. It was a random booking suggested by friends because there was no room in the other inn, so to speak – the nearby Hotel Culloden Estate and Spa of Holywood, a magnificent ancient five-star wonderland so exclusive that Room Service has an unlisted number. (That is a travel joke.)

The sprawling, creeky, artifacts-crowded ancient in Crawfordsburn had numerous charms of its own, not the least of which was a plaque modestly stating that C S Lewis and his bride Joy had spent their honeymoon (“a perfect fortnight”) there, before an eventual trip to Greece; and through the years he and his literary circle would convene there. Not Shadowlands but Crawfordsburn.

For generations of children, the association with “Chronicles of Narnia” and “Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe” is compelling. For generations of Christians, and surely generations to come, his simple classics of Apologetics and lay theology will continue to touch uncountable souls. “Mere Christianity,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Problem of Pain,” “Miracles,” “The Pilgrim’s Regress,” and other books by Lewis explained the tenets of faith to believers (and non-believers, as he once was) second only to the parables of Jesus, in some people’s opinion.

Lewis had been an atheist and had traveled the same path to faith, or back to faith, that his literary fellows (some of them the fraternal members of the “Inklings”) like J R R Tolkien, G K Chesterton, and Malcolm Muggeridge. Fallen-away, agnostic, skeptical, Socialist, atheist… all became not merely orthodox Christians but fervent believers, uniquely sharing the gospel in ways that we categorize as “apologetics.” The young Lewis even met the brilliant Irish poet William Butler Yeats – whose modest gravesite, again “coincidentally,” we stumbled across when stopping for a photo-op at a picturesque old church ruin on a country road! – and whose own relationship to Christianity was complicated but thought-provoking.

Lewis’ marriage was to an American Jewess who also converted to Christianity. After a short marriage (there IS a touchstone: Crawfordsburn; I have not forgotten!) she died of cancer. Lewis wrote a tender and thoughtful book on spiritual confrontations with death – but published it under a pen name, not to traffic in his loss.

It was such a meaningful and profound book that on its publication, many of Lewis’ friends sent him the book as perfect reading to assuage his grief, not knowing he was the author.

It is more than these coincidences – except the coincident result of my contemplating the great man since the trip – that inspires this essay. One of C S Lewis’ great books about faith is the modest yet intense “The Weight of Glory.”

Literary-minded people always are  impressed by phrases or titles that immediately capture an argument, or augur compelling thoughts. I suggest that “the weight of glory,” as a proposition, is pregnant with implications and challenges. I will briefly (you’re welcome) and feebly recommend its contemplation in a few rehashed words.

Glory. God’s glory. Salvation. When someone comes to “saving knowledge of God” – a personal relationship with Jesus – they have joy unspeakable, the greatest experience of this life. Or, naturally, eternity.

Christianity. The Bible, and C S Lewis among other exegetes, tell us how simply “mere” Christianity can be achieved in our lives. But the Bible, and relatively few evangelists through the centuries, remind of of how difficult it is – even weighty and sometimes burdensome – to be a Christian, to receive the glory of the Lord.

When you are a Christian, you must share Christ. If you knew the cure for someone’s fatal illness, you would share that information. Well… you do.

When you are a Christian, you cannot get enough of Him; you will have insatiable thirst. Your passion does not end when you swear an oath.

When you are a Christian, you pray without ceasing – praise and requests; desires and confessions.

When you are a Christian, it is because you are a Christ-follower in all ways; not merely Not a Jew, Not a Muslim, when people ask.

When you are a Christian, you will not only “put away childish things” of belief; you will BE renewed in mind and spirit – and feel it, and show it, and live it.

When you are a Christian, you will have charitable impulses you never felt. You will sacrifice. You will tend to the sick and hurting; you will ache to have your family join you in Glory.

These impulses are not simple membership rules. They will be the “fruit” you bear. And you will be “convicted” in your spirit if they do not become part of your conscious DNA.

Are they worth it? Oh, yes. But salvation will involve more than a refreshing moment and a spiritual “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It is what C S Lewis called “The Unspeakable Burden of Salvation.”

I do not believe in ghosts, but the lobbies and halls of the Old Inn at Crawfordsburn reminded me of C S Lewis’s life and career and writings: his clarity and his impact. Worthwhile remembrance! Christianity is “merely” simple, and profoundly transformative.

+ + +

Mo Pitney sings:

Click: Give Me Jesus

Be Not Deceived. God Is Not Mocked.

6-26-17

Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

That familiar verse – or maybe not familiar enough – is from Galatians 6:7. The rest of the verse is: A man reaps what he sows. And another translation of this verse reads, Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked.

This is one of the most profound verses in the Bible. In a way, a chilling spiritual threat by God Almighty. Throughout the Bible God is revealed variously as a God of Mercy and Anger and Love and Vengeance and Compassion. He is, and has been through all of humankind’s history, all those things.

As humble believers and fallible souls, sinners yet saved by Grace… the aspect of God that might concern us the most is when He acts as a God of Justice.

For it is just that we deserve punishment. We fall short. We are sinners in the presence of a Holy God. Yes; saved, we are covered by the Blood; God does not expect perfection, but He demands that we seek perfection. Yet… surely, as bold as we can be to approach the Throne of Grace, we may fear the justice of that Holy God.

What is it to “mock God”?

If you know His Commandments, but willfully rebel,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you are a regular church-goer, and pay your tithes, and can list good deeds; and think that you therefore deserve Heaven,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you were a fervent Christian, but have “back-slid,” yet still have good Christian friends and think your membership the local church, or your kids in Sunday School, are enough to please an “understanding” God,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you are a leader; or a pastor, priest, or rabbi, with a hidden sin, yet think that influencing the community for good will tip the scales in your favor,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you believe that Jesus was a great teacher but not necessarily the Son of God; or that the Bible is book of well-meaning myths and stories but with powerful lessons; if you believe this,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

This is all to say that we humans have an infinite capacity for self-deception… but in vital cases like these, our “selves” are the only people we deceive – maybe a few weak minds around us – but certainly not God.

There is a God; He is Holy and He is just; He does not require more of you than that of which you are capable. Many people think that applies only to grief or temptation or worries… but it applies to obedience too.

Do not plan to discover loopholes or plead extenuating circumstances:
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

In Glory we will discover the ultimate fate of ancient peoples, or faraway tribes that never hear the gospel. That has nothing to do with you. We cannot know what we cannot know, but in the meantime, in this land of many churches, and ministries on all airwaves, even atheists cannot claim never to have heard the invitation of Christ. Skeptics cannot say they never were confronted with arguments about sin. Believers in other gods have still heard the claims of Christ.

These people might maintain that, thanks to their willful cocoons, they never actually heard that Jesus is the Son of God; that He died to spare us the judgment for our sins; that He conquered death; and that belief in Him assures us eternal life. You can you say that you never heard these things in the past… except that here, at least, you have just heard them.

And if readers share this message, or reproduce these words, other folks who claim ignorance of the Good News can no longer avoid the consequences – the choice God presents.

And then, be not deceived:

Neither can God be deceived. And God does not countenance being mocked.

+ + +

Click: Abide With Me

Broken

5-29-17

I once attended a church where the Invitation at the end of the service invariably was unique. I did not grow up in churches where altar calls were common, a situation I regret. In the church of my heritage it was assumed you were already in the family of God; or did not need a public act to show it or prove it. It was regarded as no one else’s business. Such things were too embarrassing.

It is strange to be in a “family” if you are too embarrassed to share your joy. Or admit to shortcomings. Or show your feelings. It would seem stranger, frankly, to be embarrassed to confess anything – joy, emotion, guilt – before God Himself. Yet many Christians act that way. How many people share virtually everything in their lives with another person, or other people, yet do not talk about their faith? Is it a real faith, or is it not a real relationship, in those cases?

Back to the “Invitation” at the church later in my life. It was a large congregation, and two aspects always impressed me. The pastor would end his sermon with the Salvation message; the importance for every person to ask forgiveness, to accept Christ; and to have a genuine relationship with the Savior. And, as Jesus instructed, to confess Him before all; to go public, so to speak, as His baptism was public.

Many times there would be silence. Often it grew awkward; nobody came forward to kneel at the altar. Was everybody, even among two thousand, already confident about their souls? Then invariably, one by one, people came forward. And as they did – better, believe me, than if dozens had immediately rushed forward – the congregation encouraged them. No embarrassment. They clapped. Cheered.

It was very much a picture of what the Bible tells us in Hebrews Chapter 11, that we are always compassed about by “a great cloud of witnesses.” Watching us… and supporting us, cheering us toward Heaven.

The other aspect I remember from Pastor Focht was his encouraging word to those who hesitated, those who perhaps sought mental excuses for their spiritual shyness.

“You might not think you are quite ready to make confession, and to accept Jesus,” he said, “But you don’t need to take a bath before you take a shower. Come as you are.”

Profound. In truth, even after we are “saved,” forgiven and accepted into the Family of God, we still sin. The difference between the Old You and the New You, of course (quoting a Holy Bumper Strip I saw once) is that we are not perfect, but we are forgiven.

We grow closer to God when we have the spiritual maturity to say “God, I need You so much. I am broken. Heal me. Help me. I cannot do things (including this thing called Life) on my own!” And we grow not one inch closer when we say – as many of us are wont to do – “God, I’ll take it from here. I understand it all now. Thanks for bringing me this far. I’m OK now.”

None of us are OK now, without Jesus. All of us are broken, in some way or other.

Broken in body, frequently. Broken in spirit, more often. Sustaining broken expectations. Battered by broken promises, broken relationships, broken friendships.

I have always loved the not-so-incidental fact that Jesus was a carpenter. First, continuing His father’s craft. But more so, He was a carpenter who mended broken bodies.

Being broken, however, is not a lowly state; we only make it so.

Cathedrals are constructed with broken stones, chosen and arranged just right.

Beautiful stained-glass windows are made of uncountable pieces of broken glass.

Mosaics are made of little broken chips of ceramic, odd and insignificant in themselves, but stunning – and making sense – when a master sees the big picture… and fits everything together.

God loves the Broken Ones, and honors us when we admit to our brokenness. And he sees to it that Broken Ones come into our paths. We do His work when we bind them up, encourage them, and cheer them forward.

It is why the poor are, somehow, always with us. It is why little girls frequently choose tattered old dolls over fancy new ones. It it why our selves and our churches (despite governments’ efforts to co-opt these impulses) minister to the lost, the hurting, the… broken souls in our midst.

In those times we see the broken ones; we see Jesus; we see ourselves. Whether we have a loose button and torn dress as happens to dolls, or are physically abused or addicted, or have felt betrayed and friendless, we all could use some real patchin’ up.

+ + +

Click: Broken Ones

What Does God See in You?

5-22-17

The worst prayer – the worst kind of prayer – that a Christian can pray begins from the attitude of “Forgive me, a poor sinner”; or “Unworthy!” or “Lord, I am not fit to approach Your Throne of Grace”…

We do need forgiveness, all the time. We are poor sinners. We are unworthy and not deserving of being in His presence. These things are true…

Except for the factor of Jesus. The Person of Jesus. We are less than worthy, but we are more than conquerors.

I do not contradict myself although, like Walt Whitman, I sometimes say, “Very well, I contradict myself!” But not as to what the Bible teaches – the core of Christianity. Above, I said that prayers offered with those ATTITUDES are mistaken. If we see ourselves in those relational positions, we reject the Truths of God to whom we pray. We insult the work of Jesus on the cross. We insult the Holy Spirit of God, who is sent to be our Helper, our Guide, our Counselor.

What do people think – what do Christians think – God sees when He looks at them?

Through history, many Christians have thought, hoped, and operated on the belief that He sees our good deeds. He does… but scarcely the totality of what He sees.

Many Christians take comfort that He sees their charitable activities, missions works, volunteer efforts, even the merciful acts performed. Surely the case… but, I submit, not the main things He looks for.

There are Christians who are confident, even in spiritual modesty, that their sacrifices and their service, their sweet spirits of forgiveness, please God. Of course these “fruits” please God… but we are told that such things are as dirty rags to a Just and Perfect God if we believe that they guarantee our home in Eternity once God sees them.

The Bible is full of believers who were at the other extreme of spiritual modesty: presumption. We know of “whited sepulchres”; of show-off givers; of those who pray loudly in the temple to be noticed; of hypocrites and vipers and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Of these types God will say… “Be gone, I never knew you! Depart from Me!”

So, what does God see when He looks down (or up, or over, or through) us? Many Christians will say, “He looks at our hearts.”

Yes, He does look at our hearts. He knows us better than we know ourselves. I happen to believe that if there is a choice – however, this is not a choice in life – but if there had to be one direction of “knowing the heart,” we should desire more that that we seek after God’s own Heart, and fear that He sees ours. Which is the point of this message.

Yes, when God sees us, He sees and knows our “hearts” – our thoughts, motives, desires. But that is STILL not what sees first, last, and most important when He looks at us.

I want us all to be reminded, and take comfort, and seize for dear life, the spiritual truth that when God looks at a Christian, a believer, a Christ-follower, those who believe in their hearts that Jesus is the Son of God, and confess with their mouths that God raised Him from the dead…

And when we are in that proper relationship with God… He does not see our deeds or our merciful works or our sacrifices or our forgiveness or our offerings or loud prayers or our memorials and names on church buildings or seminary dorms…

He sees these things, and He sees, yes, our hearts.

But what God sees first and, I believe, most importantly – He sees the Blood.

When we accept and confess Jesus, we are “covered in the Blood.” As surely as its foreshadowing – the blood on the doorposts of the pesach lambs, so the Angel of Death would Pass Over – the believers in Christ are shielded from judgment.

Those who truly believe on the Saviour can be free of guilt and shame and fear. Because when God sees you… He sees your elder brother Jesus, His only-begotten Son. The precious Blood was shed in order that God’s judgment would pass over your sins and shortcomings and failings. “Do not fear,” as Jesus so often said to people.

And the precious Blood also completes what you started, in faith and hope at your best times, in areas of charity and sacrifice and forgiveness. Jesus “finished” many things on the cross, among them the spiritual assignments we accepted when we first believed.

Thank God we did not conceive these things in our puny minds, but by the Great Commission He would have us undertake. We cannot really do them except by the teachings and directions of the Christ. We cannot find the required strength and wisdom but by His Holy Spirit.

Hallelujah, when He sees us, God rather sees the Person and the Blood of Jesus. What does God see in you? He sees the Blood covering you, and the Christ in you. The proper relational understanding of God, and the confidence we can gain, should give us confidence in the ATTITUDE of the prayers we raise to God!

+ + +

Click: Come Thou Fount of Blessing / Nothing But the Blood

Preachers in Aprons, Saints in Curlers, Ceaseless Forgivers

5-15-17

One of the pathologies of contemporary life – a sure sign of the culture of death that has subsumed Western civilization – is the assault on motherhood.

Feminism was a harbinger that was perverted; “women’s liberation” was a movement birthed in economic justice that has, currently, extended to a futile but aggressive war on biological imperatives. Now we are awash in euphemisms like “gender identity” that would turn upside-down simple assumptions of all cultures from all lands and all ages.

But we in the 21st-century West know better. If boys somehow wish they were girls, we should yield to their fantasies. If women desire to be fathers, we change laws to re-define families. The prerogatives and standards of parents, and the sensibilities of the children they raise, are denied in order to accommodate statistically infinitesimal numbers of biological or emotional outliers.

Majoritarian traditionalists and Christians are sanctioned and stifled, yet the New Wave of moral nihilists – those who hate the natural and the immemorial – compose lists of proscriptions and Hate items of thought, attitudes, and speech.

These comments are not choleric, but are laments occasioned by Mother’s Day. Our thoughts should go to the institution of Motherhood, as much as to our own mothers. Theodore Roosevelt once said that “Equality of right does not mean equality of function.” He was the first major politician in America to be an advocate of women’s right to vote – even when his wife herself dissented – yet he revered the institution of motherhood: the role of women in the scheme of life. Toward women and mothers he was almost worshipful, regarding their work and responsibilities as more difficult, and perhaps more valuable, than men’s.

“Equality of function” to him did not imply mere functionality, but addressing roles – where life finds us; where we confront life; where we assess God’s will for our lives – and doing our work honorably.

The humorist Jean Shepherd (possibly the first time he will be paired with Theodore Roosevelt in any essay) devoted a lot of his radio monologues in the 1960s when I was a young addict of his wit and wisdom, to what he called the “Great Role Reversal.” He made many observations, frequently inspired by news items. Minor, everyday occurrences seemed, as often the case in the world of Popular Culture, more dispositive than academic papers and scholarly statistics.

Shep milked chuckles from the effluvia of such reports… but mainly he ruminated on the enormous cultural shift underway in the US. Indeed, the trickle became a tsunami. The nuclear family is under attack. Traditional gender roles are ridiculed. Legal reshuffling for cohabitants is insufficient; the dictionary must contort itself to re-define “family” and “mother.” Male predators must be allowed to enter girl’s rooms. New genders, and names for them, are being invented by the dozens.

I never have had the privilege of being a mother. As closely bound as I was to fathering, fatherhood, being present at the births, then nurturing and rearing my children… I am aware it all is a far-distant second. The special relationship of mother and child, among all species, in fact, is a unique and precious blessing.

A birthright, in fact.

For all the good feelings engendered by Mother’s Day, I reserve a portion of contempt for those creatures who denigrate the institution of Motherhood; who deny the privilege – to others, not only for themselves – of sanctifying the foundation of the family; for hating what we love.

I reserve a portion of pity, too. I must. What I call the Culture of Death extends beyond the trashing of motherhood and women’s traditional roles. Biologically, homosexuals cannot naturally procreate (pro-create). Abortion fanatics crusade for death – disguising their advocacy as convenience for the mothers. And so on. They are to be pitied, and prayed for.

In the meantime, my Mother’s Day is filled with memories of the Mom I knew. I loved her, and love her. She was an example whose nurture appears stronger through the years: seeds, planted, and growing in my life. A servant’s heart, making silent and willing sacrifices. Was she perfect? Smoking and drinking were regrettable but did not affect her salvation. Big deal. We prayed for Jesus to turn the wine back into water. Of vital importance is that she knew Jesus, was active in churches, and related almost every question I ever had to the gospel.

A preacher in aprons. A saint in curlers. An invariable Forgiver.

I believe God created Woman not only as a helpmeet to Adam, but as an Assistant to Himself. As Mothers, to show unconditional love; to bond in unique ways with their children; to bear the essence of comfort, understanding, acceptance.

I admired my Dad, oh yes; I still finish every project wondering if he would approve; to be a good professional. But Mom? If I can be as good a man as she was a mother, I will die grateful and content.

There are some women who, by circumstance or infirmity, sadly cannot become mothers. Most women whom I have met from those groups have hearts even more tender for families and for children.

However, sorry to tell all of you radical harridans who hate, you have disinvited yourselves from family reunions – not at ballparks on summer afternoons, or Grandma’s house on Winter evenings – but from that mystical, privileged, and sacred Family that truly is a gift of God.

+ + +

Does this essay seem to dwell on old-fashioned things? I plead guilty! There are too many old fashions that we are losing. Here is one: a tender lullaby, a mother’s song, written by Stephen Foster 150 years ago. Sung by Alison Kraus.

Click: Slumber, My Darling

May Day

5-1-17

Recently we noted that throughout history, pagan observances and celebrations often were co-opted by the Roman church, roughly conterminous with the expansion of the faith. And when expansion was not tractable in lands or with peoples, organized-Christianity found ways to incorporate the names of tribes’ festivals, or certain practices, or pagan gods with new names. Theories abound about the word “Easter,” for instance, and the calendar-date of Christmas.

Such traditions of organized religion better can be filed under “marketing” more than theology; ecclesiology more than evangelism.

Christendom since the Reformation has split in two ways in this matter too. Generally, Protestant peoples of northern Europe have revived Springtime pagan observances, often calling, and sometimes believing, that they are mere celebrations of Renewal, Nature, and Fertility. Holidays run the gamut from countryside dances to dedications of animals, seeds, and celebrants’ resolutions for the year ahead. Catholic lands often have named or invented saints who overlook the prospects of farmers and planters; Harvest Festivals in advance.

From back in hazy pre-history, May 1 was the date agreed upon as the appropriate day, regarded as the beginning of Spring (advent of Summer in some ancient cultures). It is roughly halfway between the Spring equinox and the Summer solstice.

The fertility goddess Maia, a figure in both Greek and Roman mythology, inspired the name “May” and other related words in many languages. Springtime celebrations of fertility were common to all societies. Singing, dancing, special pastries, and the presence of flowers, as in the May Pole, were common to all. So were bonfires, whose smoke was deemed to have protective properties. Faces were sometimes washed in the day’s morning dew.

In Nordic lands, Walpurgisnacht festivals still are held – nighttime activities including bonfires, wreaths of flowers, planting of seeds, and burning of branches, lending a pagan veneer that even an attempt to retroactively honor a patron saint cannot dispel (Saint Walburga is claimed to have introduced Christianity to German lands… but history bestows that honor on St Patrick). In countries like Estonia and Poland, May 1 – Walpurgis Fest – is a national holiday. In Germany, people still gather around bonfires and dance around May Poles festooned with Spring flowers.

In Ireland and nations of Celtic origin, “Beltane” is honored still, even in sight of ancient churches. Neopagans and wiccans have revived the old practices, often adding incantations. Italians harken to pre-Christian days, celebrating Rebirth in its larger senses as “Calendimaggio,” but retaining pagan rites of the ancient Etruscans and Ligures… whose languages are lost to us, but whose superstitions endure.

In Catholic lands, statues of Mary frequently are adorned with wreaths of Spring flowers. (She is the “Queen of May,” to the uninitiated.) In Britain, Morris dancing, decorating May Poles with garlands of flowers, and such outdoor rituals date back to Anglo-Saxon fertility fetes when May was called the “Month of Three Milkings.”

There is another May Day with which we are all too familiar. Known alternatively as International Workers Day, many people assume its own origins are also shrouded in the musty past and in obscure lands, or at least as a holiday of Socialists and Communists, the progeny of Karl Marx or Soviet conspirators.

The red May Day, however, was inspired by an event in America, as recently as 1886, thereafter adopted by Bolsheviks around the world. Disaffected radicals – workers and farmers, anarchists and socialists – agitated for a national strike in 1886, but in Haymarket Square, Chicago, things turned ugly when a bomb was thrown by persons unknown. When the smoke cleared, police and strikers were dead, many injured. The radical Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW or “Wobblies,” was founded there soon afterward. The Haymarket Riot inspired Communists to commemorate it with labor’s May Day.

From the Soviets’ Moscow to Beijing to Havana to Pyongyang to Harvard and Berkeley, that traditional has continued.

The other May Day we know about is the international distress signal. It is only about a century old, displacing wireless telegraphy’s SOS soon after it was first implemented by the sinking Titanic. “May Day” was the vocal shorthand, as the Morse Code was superseded, for emergencies, probably the transliteration of the French “m’aider” – “help me.”

I am not sure whether towns and schools, in the US anyway, have May Day events any more – at least not like when I was a schoolkid, when there actually were dances around Maypoles, threading garlands of flowers; and assigned essays about Spring, and we were allowed to mention God. Now, in this brave new world that is realizing the dreams of Socialists, from Europe on the brink to major forces in the US, every day is May Day.

But the May Day that has the most relevance – that is, immediate import – to Patriots and Christians, is the international Distress Signal.

We are indeed adrift and in distress. As a society, as a culture, we need help. We need to be rescued. “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

IFs aplenty. We need revival, but we cannot pray for God’s magic wand. He has never worked that way. We cannot effect it without the Holy Ghost; but God will not bring revival if we do not repent.

Unlike the distress call that went out when the Titanic was sinking, we have the ability to influence our rescue. We can save our lives as He heals our land. But May Days will end sometime. Help us, Lord.

+ + +

Click: Help Me

The Truth About Progressivism

4-24-17

Not quite the same thing, but I might address the Fallacy of Progress. Being skeptical of Progress is akin, in these times, of ancient heresies deserving of the stocks and public derision.

Our human family, “advancing” through culture, literacy, prosperity, science, and democracy, has ambled through history, ultimately through eras of Humanism, Enlightenment, and Universal Democratic Principles, to the Twentieth century. Was the promulgation of a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” a landmark of humankind’s progress… or a shining example of human folly, pretentiousness, and folly? Its self-delusion might be measured by the effectiveness of its “universal” application since 1948.

In any event, its Twentieth Century – even after its somber adoption – was a period of unimaginable cruelty and barbarity, which saw the shedding and squeezing of blood from uncountable millions; wars and scientifically refined methods of slaughtering one another; virulent hatred and oppression, and mothers’ tears, probably exceeding those of all of history’s previous centuries.

We, humankind, have arrived at the present time, riding into town, as it were, on the horns of a dilemma – which sounds like a Dr Seuss animal, but represents, rather, a crisis in world history. All nations and peoples have come to realize that monarchies and serfdoms and dictatorships are dysfunctional at best and brutalizing at worst…

No. All nations and all peoples have NOT realized that. Only dullard high-school teachers and meaningless United Nations resolutions maintain this fallacy. Is this Progress? – billions of people around the world live under dictatorships; some of the enslaved people are restive and desperate, but some are relatively content because they have creature comforts their parents lacked. Some percentage of humanity retains a totalitarian strain, happy to profit by it at least in some emotionally selfish manner. If they are not among the persecuted, of course.

Even in America, the first nation to overthrow its monarchy, many citizens still act like subjects. That is, a fannish slobbering over “Royals.” Seemingly a trivial fascination, this reveals that the average American craves to be subservient to random groups of “superiors.” No offense meant to Queen Elizabeth, especially at the time of the old girl’s birthday, but how any of her breed should be called “high-ness” or “majesty” is degrading; a mystery to me.

The American obsession with subservience extends beyond Accidents of Birth. It is no different, but surely costlier, when Americans idolize athletes, movie stars, and “celebrities.” Not heroes, but Personalities, that bizarre euphemism for people otherwise lacking in admirable characteristics beyond good looks or the ability to pretend to be other people before cameras. The modern equivalents of taxes paid to the local lords are higher ticket prices and higher product costs due to funding their salaries, endorsement fees, etc.

Have computers and the internet brought heaven on earth… are not they proof of Progress? Surely the increase in knowledge is impressive, and has vast potential for good. Yet pornography is the most-visited category of web hits. Students have access to virtually limitless data, yet are ignorant (and increasingly so, each year that passes) of foundational facts of government, history, and religion.

Able to learn about history’s greatest figures, and humankind’s most significant conflicts, Americans choose the Kardashians and video games.

If one accepts that human nature is dark, then any system with few restraints is going to be dark too. That applies to democracy and politics, or lowest-common-denominator popular culture. The computer’s mouse makes a sorry compass. Human nature, allowed freedom to its Nth degree, is not going to turn benign because we take a wrong turn in the direction of Instant Gratification.

The horns of that dilemma I spoke of is this: We cannot turn back any clocks. It is rare when a nation votes itself fewer freedoms. When it has happened, an awareness of sclerotic licentiousness is never the reason. “Those who surrender freedom for security end up with neither.” Churchill is supposed to have said that “democracy is the worst form of government, until you consider any alternative.” Yet democracy has brought us corruption and self-indulgence.

The malicious impulses behind democracy and finance capitalism are cancers that have, and will, spread. I pointed to the celebrity culture as an example of a free people returning to false values again and again, as the Bible describes dogs returning to their own vomit. The Caesars knew: bread and circuses keep an exploited population fat and happy… until a culture rots from its core.

Progress? The word is becoming odious. “Turn back the clock”? History never really regresses, either. The answer is a Third Way. It is in the Bible – the wisdom of the ages for all things. It holds the answers to all questions. Its knowledge is dispensed from the Throne.

Two verses from Proverbs, of course, are keys that can unlock the door of our cultural dilemma:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7); and

“Gold there is, and a multitude of rubies: but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel” (20:15).

If our land were to rightly regard the Source of all knowledge and wisdom, and lean not to our own understanding and lusts, that dilemma would be tamed, and we could know genuine spiritual progress indeed.

+ + +
Click: Do You Know?

Don’t Ask Me.

1-9-17

Everybody is an expert these days. Pundits know more than politicians. Bloggers know more than pollsters. People at McDonald’s know more than the president. (The funny thing is, many times these things are true! But, to continue the thought…) Our brother-in-law knows more than we do, whatever the topic; our spouses usually are correct, even when we don’t admit it; and the most aggressively ignorant voter has the same power as policy wonks do.

It is the Age of Experts. Not “expertise,” not wisdom, necessarily, but opinions transcendent. Opinions are not facts, but these days they carry the same weight.

With all the humility I can muster, I want to go on the record and say that there is a LOT that I don’t know. Many of us are tempted to assume, or project, or – let’s be honest – fake an answer, when we are asked things. People ask casual questions or sometimes cry out with anguish about heavy issues. How dare we presume to know things we don’t, whether from positions of false pride or assumptions of merciful comfort.

It is honest to answer casual questions, “Beats me!” And it is liberating to respond to a hurting soul, “I don’t know! I just don’t know either.”

I don’t know why a child who has been loved and nurtured “turns out bad.”

I don’t know why a lovely, innocent child is brutalized by a predator, or killed in an accident.

I don’t know why a youth who turned into an addict, a drunk, an abuser, or a criminal, one day turned his or her life around and became a redeemed soul, ministering to others.

I don’t know why people, especially the kindly folks among us, contract deadly diseases.

I don’t know why people with “incurable diseases” get healed; as I have seen, cancers disappearing, dead limbs coming to life, restored sight.

I don’t know why spouses who are in loving marriages cheat.

I don’t know why rich people steal, or powerful people needlessly scheme, or political leaders oppress.

I don’t know why some people forsake all worldly goods and live among the poor, serving the weak and rejected.

I don’t know why religious people unfairly discriminate, or some of the clergy sexually abuse children.

I don’t know why, in lands of freedom and opportunity, people are lazy, “entitled,” lawless, anti-intellectual, hateful.

I don’t know why our society, despite all its blessings and its heritage, careens to the bottom of the culture’s dumpster, glorifying low morals, lack of respect, and self-glorification.

I don’t know why a nation founded on liberty and goals of equal rights, marches toward government controls and regulation.

I don’t know why a scientific society can, at the same time, devise miracle cures and means of prolonging life… and perfect ways of killing babies more efficiently, with easier consciences, and increasingly by edict.

I don’t know why a country can brag about democracy at home and impose non-democratic systems on other nations.

I don’t know why a country with crumbling roads, bridges, tunnels – and morals – insists on scurrying after such concerns elsewhere in the world.

I don’t know why, with all of our “progress,” humankind seems worse off than ever. Religious persecution, deaths and torture, ethnic cleansing and barbarity, are rife. I don’t know why.

I really don’t know why the Creator of the Universe loves me. Knows me, cares for me, sacrificed His Son for the punishment I deserve as a crummy, rebellious sinner. I don’t know. He tells me; it’s in the Bible; the Holy Ghost whispers to my spirit. Sometimes I know, with gratitude, but sometimes it overwhelms me.

Those are a few things I don’t know. I don’t know why people forgive – or how they can forgive, sometimes. I know we SHOULD, but… I just don’t know why or how.

But God does. That I DO know: God knows.

Comforted by that fact – not opinion – I know that there are things I do not need to know, personally.

When we don’t know the answers, and don’t even know the questions sometimes, that’s when we pray. Pray for answers. Pray alone. Pray together.

When I am comforted by the assurance that I do not need to know all the answers because He does, I have come to the definition of Faith.

I don’t know. He does. Ask Him! He will lead you to all Truth.

+ + +

Click: Go Ask the One

The Little Town of Bethlehem, Where “Unto” Becomes “Into”

12-12-16

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.

From all appearances, nothing was happening in the quaint little town of Bethlehem. Businesses had closed, and residents shut themselves in for the night. Mary and Joseph had arrived and settled in a stable because there was no room for them in the Inn.

In the fields nearby, shepherds made themselves as comfortable as possible on the cold, hard ground as they guarded their sheep. An inky sky stretched above them like a never-ending wrap of peace and tranquility.

But, suddenly, great activity stirred the shepherds from their rest. Peace and tranquility, instantly replaced with fear and trembling. For among the silent stars above, the Christ star appeared, remarkably distinct from any other.

At the same time, a brilliant light blinded the shepherds. They dropped to their faces, acknowledging the glory of the angel of God standing before them.

The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people! Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

Then, before the shepherds could even process what the angel had said, the very heavens opened, and a great number of heavenly hosts joined the visiting angel in celebration and praise. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”

The shepherds probably looked from one to the other when the angels had gone; joyous, giddy laughter bubbling from their souls. Could this really be true? The Messiah they’d learned about as children? The Messiah promised to come to Bethlehem to be ruler over Israel?

“Come,” they said to one another. “Let’s go see this Child in Bethlehem. For the prophets have said that ‘a Child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace’” (the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6).

Can you imagine the shepherds’ joy and excitement as they tromped across the fields in expectation of witnessing the birth of the promised Messiah?

Today we sing Christmas carols and music that retell this miraculous story of Christ’s birth. One begins, “For unto us a Child is born.”

But unto us isn’t enough, for the value of a gift is nothing until the gift has been willingly received.

A verse in O Little Town of Bethlehem changes the wording just slightly, but the change makes a significant difference in application to our personal lives. The verse says, “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.”

I love that. Enter in. Be born in us today.

We, too, can witness Christ’s birth. Not in a stable far away in another country, another era. Here, today. In my heart. In my life. And in your heart and your life.

Our response? Let’s hearken and respond to the timeless call of the heavenly hosts, saying, “Come and worship. Come and worship. Worship Christ the newborn King.”

+ + +

Today’s essay is a Guest Blog by my friend Barbara E Haley, gifted in words and music. She is an educator and Reading Interventionist, and lives in San Antonio, Texas, where she enjoys writing at IHOP, playing classical piano, and spending time with her grandchildren. www.barbarahaleybooks.com

Click: O Little Town of Bethlehem

The ancient town of Bethlehem, whose story is very real and very true, is also eternal as Barb’s essay reminds us. And in that sense, picturing it in a later context is worthwhile. This drawing is by the German cartoonist Wilhelm Schulz, who, early in the last century, depicted the Story and its holy players in the setting of a rural German town. Schulz’s collaborator was the poet Ludwig Thoma; the book was “Heilige Nacht: Eine Weihnachtslegende.”

We Can Escape the Savior, But Not the Judge

12-5-16

Christianity as a Christmas tree: The consumerist culture of America – more generally, of the materialistic West — has brought us opportunities to choose.

— Choose from among material goods. Once upon a time, Henry Ford reportedly said that his millions of Model Ts were available in any color you wanted, as long as that color was black. Yet his industrial miracle was a boon to middle-class America; and now customers can choose from many manufacturers, many makes, many models, many new designs and options. And many colors.

— Choose among foods. Seasonal fruits and vegetables out of season. Varieties of ethnic foods. Fast food, and faster food. At home or in the car.

— Choose between fashion styles. “Do your thing.” Dress codes mostly out the window. Cargo shorts at church. T-shirts at weddings. Jeans at funerals. Pajama bottoms in public; underpants on display; adornment of permanent outerwear – tattoos and piercings on every inch of bodies.

— Choose amongst lifestyles, and change lifestyles at will. Choose to switch identities and genders. Declare to be a member of a different race. Let rebellion become conformity. Adopt moral codes – or none – depending on your whim, with no regard to long traditions, the effect on contemporaries, or implications for society’s future.

— Commit to any religion, or none; or all. Pick and choose. Dismiss that which makes you uncomfortable; accept those aspects that sound logical to you. Our contemporary world does not recognize that those who embrace all, believe in none.

There is the Christian religion, with its hundreds of permutations and dogmas. And then there is Christianity, a very different thing. There are things we are taught, and believe; and then, sadly, things the Bible teaches that often are different. “Sad,” that is, for us, not God. Through history, people have held to comfortable beliefs and doctrines that are at variance with scripture. Thus were denominations born. And breakaway churches. And schisms. And, sometimes, wars.

These human tendencies are not exclusive to Christianity. The varieties of Islamic sects, practices, and beliefs are many, and have covered much of the Middle East with blood for almost 1500 years. The schisms have brought grief and terror to all parts of the world… and, still, most of us cannot label the factions, their roles, and their headquarters. One needs a scorecard, not the least to comprehend the ancient justifications for their fratricide. Factions within Mohammedanism can be so contentious that some of the faithful lose their heads. And others lose their heads for them.

At one extreme we humans are contrary sorts of folks, or we have an attraction to wanting to monopolize the truth. Such is called Pride in the Bible – it was so called immediately in the Garden. Perhaps, ultimately, pride is humankind’s greatest sin. At the other end of the spectrum, no less toxic to peoples’ souls but merely quieter, are those who think there is NO truth. They exist is self-delusional bliss, but never knowing peace, forgiveness, grace, and elemental joy.

One of the mordant by-products of a secular, pluralistic, “open and welcoming” democracy is that, absent a very strong ethos or a succession of inspired leaders through the generations, these positive values corrode. They rust and lose their strength. Moral codes grow brittle and they break; and eventually are forgotten.

The fault is not in the rules of morality. Morals and ethics do not become less relevant: in a changing world they become better guides for us. But we know better, right? But there IS such a thing as Absolute Truth. Jesus declared Himself to BE the Truth. Truth is truth… and does not at all depend on our opinion of it.

The Spirit of the Age would convince us that we know better than the Bible; that history – all the civilizations that fell because of internal corruption and the abandonment of morality – is no guide. Our “progress” and inventions and science convince us that we know the truth… and God, up there? Jesus, over here? the Bible, over there? Hey, we don’t need You any more.

Blasphemies from Old Testament days, heresies from the days of the early Church, relativistic lies of our contemporary movements, are all the same, small group of lies that have seduced people through the millennia. We eat, drink, and are never quite merry… because one of those lies has just got to be true. Right?

Relativism is the new religion – “what’s right for ME is right” – and Pride is then same old god. We embrace this, spinning with its doomed promises in a dance of death, becoming insensible to the simple, pure, loving Message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In God’s order we are invited to accept Christ and live as a follower of Him. We are free, at our peril, to reject that invitation. We can avoid the Master, and ignore His loving invitation. But One whom we cannot avoid, nor ignore – nor escape – is the God of Judgment.

In the meantime, be your own God. Everybody’s doing it.

+ + +

Click: Can It Be That I Should Gain?

Our Pentecost of Calamity

8-22-16

There are many worldviews by which people live today, as there always has been in all societies. The difference in contemporary America, I think, is that the majority of citizens have no idea of what a worldview is, or whether or not they care about operating under any established and consistent precepts.

Even Christians, including dedicated and fervent church-goers, often fail the test of worldview standards. Many Christians love God and believe in Jesus, but as if in the world but not of the world, know more what they oppose than what they should defend. As we recently noted, most people these days are not so much ignorant of history as indifferent to its relevance.

In the political realm, partisans on the Left know their socialist and Marxist dogma, even if they reject the labels. On the Right, there are patriots who love liberty and know the Constitution. In the vast Middle, well-intentioned people are malleable, their opinions inevitably shaped less by events than by the media and the culture.

This situation in America and the West was foretold by Aldous Huxley in a letter to George Orwell (both notable futurists and dystopian thinkers) in 1949: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than [sticks] and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”

The Bible, inevitably, put the same thought – the same prediction – most clearly: “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (II Timothy 4: 3-4). Indeed, we love our servitude.

Counted among those “teachers” are not only members of the educational-industrial complex, but also politicians, role-models from popular culture, and… “people of the cloth” – ministers, preachers, priests, rabbis.

I am pessimistic about the future of American civilization (as well as of our “democracy,” republic, and government) because we are the inheritors of at least 500 years of a corrupted worldview. The worst aspects of a cultural secularization were unlikely to have coexisted with theocentric virtue. America was a “last best hope” of mankind, not for democracy’s sake – never an ideal of the Founders and Framers – but of a virtuous society. Respect, self-respect, order, justice, charity: these were among the characteristics recommended, and recognized, by Pilgrims and Great Revivalists; by our civic architects like John Adams and James Madison; by admiring observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, who retained enough equanimity to state: “When America ceases to be good, she will cease being great.”

One of the infections of the half-millennium cited above is the belief in progress, a hallmark of the Modern Age. Most Americans will think my definition, and certainly my analysis, is loopy. But that shows how pervasive this worldview has become. Earlier societies and civilizations, however, neither believed in the inevitability of human progress nor its efficacy, if they thought much about it at all.

Inherent in the concept of progress, and history’s plodding march “forward,” is perfectibility. Once that belief is subscribed (and we have made a fetish of it in the West), then it naturally follows that laws can be passed, rules enforced, behavior modified, all to achieve perfection. In society; in individuals. Justice. Heaven on earth. Utopia.

Of course, this leads not to progress but to schemes, warring factions, and, for example, the parade of monsters of the past century who consigned millions to servitude and battlefield slaughters. Secularism, the glorification of Self, will do that. Human nature without its restraints reveals the worst, not the putative best, aspects. We have arrived at the 21st century thinking we know better than all societies, in all of history – better than the Word of God – about the structure of the family, the role of authority, the sanctity of life, and a host of such truths. Gosh, we’re great.

I cannot decry progress in certain areas by certain characterizations. My late wife, a diabetic since the age of 13, would not have had a 14th birthday party if not for medical science. I could not be enjoying Bach as I type a message that (still magically, to me) will be read by thousands of people. I am not an all-in Luddite.

But our conceited conviction that, quoting Dr Pangloss from Voltaire’s “Candide,” this is the best of all possible worlds, is as self-swindling and ridiculous as, well, Pangloss himself. It might just be the case that the world will never host a greater philosopher than Plato; no better sculptors than Michelangelo and Rodin; no better composers than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The works of Rodin and the Viennese masters do not vitiate my point, but encourage us always to create and emulate. Not be perfect, because only God is perfect; but to create as He inspires us to be creative. (I mention Rodin, having last week stood in awe before sculptures in the Rodin Museum…)

The most pernicious effect of this modern malady is that we humans make a god of perfectibility: to the extent we can think, innovate, reform, and devise according to a faith in Progress, we commensurately surrender faith in God. We have replaced it with a faith in humanistic progress, in humankind’s perfectibility, in our selves.

Foolish us, we are doomed to fail. If you can lift your gaze from the muck – the bread and circuses as well as the disintegration of our social fabric – you will see how well the seduction of Progress’s inevitability and modern definition is working.

“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served… or the gods… in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

+ + +

Purcell’s Funeral Sentences

The Festival of the Empty Nest

8-15-16

The end of summer is nigh… Schools are back in session… Once upon a time, it was the “new television season”… Labor Day around the corner and the traditional beginning of the presidential campaign (I wish it WERE only starting now, instead of two hundred weeks ago)….

Anyway, these few days are called many things, but they are also regarded by countless families as the Festival of the Empty Nest. Many young people are going off to college for the first time.

Leaving home, whether it is to dive into life, or for the intermediary step of a college career, or the military, or a job opportunity, is a Rite of Passage. For parents and children alike it is, or should be, the essence of Bittersweet. All of a sudden, 17 or 18 years seems like a blur; everyone becomes conscious of unfinished projects and unshared words.

But the clock is ticking, the calendar is calling, and life awaits. Oddly, the hours drag, but the years have flown.

I watched the recent conventions and wondered about the rising class of future leaders. Old leaders and newcomers spoke. Many times I asked myself: “A third of billion people in America, and this is the best we can do?” Who are next on the horizon? Do they know? Can they dream? – Can they prepare well? It is a lesson framed many ways: “Carpe diem” – seize the day. “Never a second chance at a first impression.” “Strike while the iron is hot.” “We pass this way but once.”

I see lessons to be applied in family situations when children leave home, too. Our regrets should not equate with inability to let go. Every one of us should say all that we can to our children; express everything, without reservation. As we should have all those years past. Now is the time to make up for uncountable lost opportunities! Or so we feel.

Children juggle the loss of the family’s pod-like security and the excitement of independence. I was always a little disappointed when my own children did not resist getting on the school bus on the first days of their school lives, as I fought back tears. But, to them they were new chapters; to me, chapters ending.

For parents there is no way properly to describe the mixed feelings of the mixed blessing. You will miss the daughter or son. For many of us, despite the contrary assurance of worldly logic, a crater suddenly exists in our everyday lives. But we are wired as parents to possess an indescribable joy in seeing our children take their next steps into the world. Spread their wings. It is RIGHT. It is what you have prepared your child for – even if not yourself, fully – all these years.

Being a parent was never easy. Oh, all the challenges and crises… but then how is it that the hardest part comes when they leave home?

I’m not sure science has ever analyzed tears. Those salty droplets. Maybe one of our budding students will win the Nobel Prize for such research. But there are tears of pain, of regret, of sorrow, of bitterness, of lost opportunities, of lost love and found love, and surely tears of joy. The tears that parents shed during these rites of passage are of a special composition. Distilled, they somehow confirm to us God’s loving “wheel” of life – “there is a season,” He tells us. Whether a little scary, or seemingly sudden, or a guarantee of big changes in our lives… we must seize more than the moment, but the season too.

“Letting go?” Think of it as spreading your arms in fond farewell, so that they can be open to receive… when the next season comes.

+ + +

I have never heard a song, or read lyrics, that more beautifully reflects the bundle of emotions in the Rite of Passage of children leaving home (in this case, a college student) than “Letting Go,” by Doug Crider and Matt Rollings.

She’ll take the painting in the hallway,
The one she did in junior high.
And that old lamp up in the attic,
She’ll need some light to study by.

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day.
She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.
Letting go: There’s nothing in the way now,
Oh, letting go, there’s room enough to fly.
And even though she spent her whole life waiting,
It’s never easy letting go.

Mother sits down at the table,
So many things she’d like to do.
Spend more time out in the garden,
Now she can get those books read too.

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day.
She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.
Letting go: There’s nothing in the way now,
Oh, letting go, there’s room enough to fly.
And even though she spent her whole life waiting,
It’s never easy letting go.

+++

For a music video of this song, amazingly performed by the amazing Suzy Bogguss (wife of Doug Crider), click: Letting Go

Dad’s Day – “Daddy!”

6-20-16

Father’s Day. A bit of an ersatz holiday started, actually in fits and starts, about a century ago, mostly as an answer to the more successful, and sentimental, Mother’s Day. Calvin Coolidge was one of several presidents and officials to resist any formalization – on grounds that would be antithetical to our contemporary standards: fearing it would become too commercialized. It was only President Johnson who issued the first proclamation, in the 1960s; and President Nixon a few years later signed the observance of Father’s Day into law.

We need a law to honor our fathers? Well, manufacturers of socks and ugly neckties did. Do we have stronger impulses to honor our distaff parental units? Perhaps so, instinctively, aided and abetted by Hallmark and florists.

This weekend we can suspend the cynicism, however. I honor and miss my father. He has been gone more than 15 years yet I still reach for the phone, sometimes, to share something with him. When I finish writing a book, or discover a piece of classical music, my first impulse is to think what he would say about it.

This is proper. The “scarlet thread” is not solely of Redemption in our lives: we are, or should consider ourselves, members of a continuum that is stronger than blood. Family traditions, the fabric of memories, shared experiences – these are truer resemblances than overbites or freckles.

You will expect me to enlarge the topic to our Heavenly Father, and so I shall.

It is a cliché, or a chestnut, to say that, regarding God Almighty, every day should be Father’s Day. But like most clichés it is true. The sheer magnificence of God can sometimes be overwhelming… similar to when we try to think of the size of the universe. How big, how far… and what is beyond the farthest reaches we can imagine? How old is the universe? Forget the Big Bang… what came before the Big Bang (or, to use the Bible’s parlance, Creation)?

The Lord is one God but present through the Trinity; manifested in one Incarnation but with uncountable attributes; the One True God, the “I Am,” yet with endless aspects; and so forth. The “God of the Old Testament” is often an appellation for a God of Vengeance and Justice. The “God of the New Testament” is described as a God of Love and Mercy. Yet, of course, these attributes – and more – are consistent, frequent, and immutable. Not changeable; just faceted.

Then there is “Abba.” Don’t worry. I am not going to discuss the Swedish pop group ABBA. Many Christians use “Abba” in addressing God, relying, whether consciously or not, upon three passages in the New Testament:

“And [Jesus] said, Abba, Father, all things (are) possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Mark 14:36).

“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6).

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15).

A little etymology for a moment. These are the only times in the New Testament that “Abba” appears. It is an ancient Aramaic word for Father, adopted and adapted into Hebrew, probably through the Syriac or Chaldee tongues. The Greek texts use it, always follow by “Pater,” father, emphasizing the respect implied in addressing a father, or Father God. In turn the Romans made the word “Pater” their own – the Greek and Latin root giving us “paternal,” paternity,” and so forth. It exists, of course, in Arabic too, and survives in forms like “Abu” in kunya (honorific) names; for instance, the President of the Palestinian State Mahmoud Abbas has the honorific “Abu” Mazen – father of Mazen. “Abba” is possibly the root of Ab-raham, Ahab, Joab, et al. In English it lives in descendent words like “Abbot.”

It is everywhere, once you start looking. Just like our Heavenly Father.

In recent Christianity, “Abba” has been taught and urged upon worshipers as a form of “Father” that actually means something close to “Daddy.” Most recent scholarship debunks that interpretation, asserting that Abba – especially “Abba, Father” as Jesus prayed and Paul wrote – is, by doubling down, a term of heightened respect, not familiarity.

To be formal one last moment, it appears that Abba, especially in prayer, is neither symbolic nor diminutive. Not baby-talk (like Mama, a common utterance in many cultures) as some Christians maintain – a primal vocative. “Father” is a translation; “Abba” is a transliteration. These scholars even tell us that “Abba,” when people in prayer cry it out, is irreverent.

But. Words are tools. Most of us are not linguists or semanticists. And, frankly, if people intensely are praying, we can dispense with a nit-pick about a term being obscure, or irreverent, or deeply sincere. God reads our hearts, anyway.

I have witnessed, and been in the place myself, where someone is under intense spiritual anguish. Conviction, guilt, helplessness, yearning, need. Or joy unspeakable, thanksgiving, praise. People with addictions. Challenges of health or finances. Wives distraught over their marriages; fathers worried about their children; teens fighting bondage.

You pray. You remember biblical models. You seek the prayer-language of angels. And then you get to the point where you just want to say – to cry out! – “Abba!!!”

Yes, “Daddy.” We want to run to Him, hug and be hugged, feel forgiven, and know that we are loved. That’s what Daddys do.

Happy Father’s Day. And say hi to Dad for me when you pray.

+ + +

This relevant song is not Christian, but very spiritual – those family threads I wrote about. Steve Goodman, who also wrote “City of New Orleans,” sings about his father who died and inspired this emotional song. This is only for people who have had fathers; everyone else may pass it by.

Click: My Old Man

+ + +

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Teacher of the Year

5-30-16

Graduation time. As much as part of the season as the swallows “coming back to Capistrano”; the welcome of “sweet springtime, we greet thee in song”; and all that. Smart investors would have looked, in winter months, for manufacturers of caps and gowns, T-shirts that proclaim “I finally made it!” and makers of Dollar-Store trophies – brass filglagees with bronze oak-leaf palm and plastic plaques that read “Teacher of the Year.”

It is the time of year, also, for news stories about teachers, students, achievements, and academic statistics. We hear that the United States falls yet farther down in the world’s ratings of student grades and scores. We learn about dropout rates in urban schools, and meth epidemics in rural schools. Again, and again, of lowered minimum standards of aptitude tests, artificially to counteract the galloping moronization of American education.

On the other hand, bright spots. A student who scored perfect verbal and math SAT scores. Impressive winners of spelling bees. But the smaller numbers of quality student graduates are doomed to attend colleges where sensitive feelings and useless degrees predominate.

A bright spot for me this week was judging a competition (yes, the word is still legal) of students delivering orations. They had to compose and deliver – as I furiously took notes and assessed them – informative or persuasive speeches. Ages 10 to 15, any subjects of their choosing. I was impressed by maturity, self-awareness and self-assurance, and indeed, first-rate information and persuasion.

My easiest task was to critique and encourage; the toughest challenge was to choose the top three of impressive presentations. I felt a renewed hope for the future of our culture. Of course, eventually I stepped back out into the springtime air of Michigan. (Not incidentally, this was a group of home-schooled students.)

With the seed of a message planted in my mind, I did research into the Teacher of the Year concept. Like ants at a picnic, they are too many to count. Every state has an official Teacher of the Year – in fact, every county, district, town, school, and, often, grade-levels have them. There are rival associations that sanction Teachers of the Year. Every year. If you feel overwhelmed by the ubiquity of it all (how many Bests can there be?), save yourself the trouble of looking for sanctuary: even the North Marianas Islands have multiple Teacher of the Year awards.

By itself, this is encouraging, even if it says more about courtesy and gratitude than excellence. But there is that inevitable Other Side of the Coin. Teachers make headlines these days, sadly, for more than classroom excellence or inspiration. I did a Google search of “Teachers Charged with Sex Crimes” and 59 pages of stories and reports (each page, of course, with multiple links) were displayed.

Enough said about what we may call “mixed grades” to American education in 2016. Back when I was an elementary-school student I respected my teachers as people, but recognized that many of them were nitwits drawing paychecks. This generalization might be a rule of life, overall, and ultimately students excel by overcoming the mundane, perhaps a greater challenge than overcoming more blatant handicaps. But… today. A different world. Metal detectors in schools; the Bible proscribed; sex instruction and indoctrination masquerading as “sex education”; teachers whose names appear in sex-offender registries.

My mind, still racing if not reeling, thinks about some of humankind’s greatest teachers. Many were not from classrooms; many great teachers never were trained as educators. Indeed, some of our greatest teachers – I think of Abraham Lincoln – spent nary a day of their lives even as students, in the classroom-attendance sense. That mind of mine went back to Jesus, as all our minds would do well frequently to do, who at places in the Gospel accounts is addressed as Teacher (Rabboni).

It is funny that many people who deny the divinity of Christ – no, actually, it is not funny – quickly will concede that He “was a great teacher.” Usually, that is to assure us believers that they sufficiently respect Him… so that we are not offended in a conversation. They don’t mind offending the Son of Almighty God; but they want to avoid offending us.

Jesus was indeed a great teacher, the greatest in human history. But, sorry, friends, that has nothing at all (conflict-avoidance or not) to do with His claims on us.

Jesus was born of virgin, fulfilling prophecy. Accept or reject that, but do not dwell on it in relation to His claims on us.

Jesus performed miracles, healed the sick, raised the dead, which astonished witnesses, both followers and enemies; but those miracles alone did not make him divine – and is separate from His claims on us.

What Jesus really cares about is that we come face to face with the same thing He did: the Cross. He could have done nothing after fulfilling uncountable prophesies; the virgin birth; turning water into wine; walking on water; feeding 5000; raising Lazarus from the dead… and it would not mean that He was God Incarnate, or not. We are not saved by believing that a blind man could suddenly see. Salvation is, rather, in the Cross.

Without the Cross – the death that the Christ was destined to suffer, the punishment in our place, for our sins – and the Resurrection from the Dead, Jesus’ life would be the stuff of information and persuasion, perhaps; but not of Divinity. Those claims on us are the most compelling, and cannot be explained away or hidden behind honorifics of Jesus solely as “a great teacher.”

He was, of course, a great teacher. The greatest. But if that were the extent of His ministry, or His Incarnation… then His plastic nameplate would be lost among thousands of the Teacher of the Year trophies that, eventually, gather dust in our closets and storage boxes.

Jesus is the Teacher of every year, let us agree. But for Eternity, He is the Savior.

+ + +

Click: At the Cross

+ + +

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Earth Day and “My Father’s World”

4-25-16

I noted the annual observance of Earth Day. And right about now I am making ready for my annual pilgrimage to the top of that earth.

Not quite Mount Everest or Mont Blanc or Mount McKinley, but high enough: Rocky Mountain High. Not a holy trek… although it is associated with the annual Greater Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference (attendance at which I urge on all aspiring writers, published authors, casual readers, and everyone in between). Is it a true pilgrimage? Yes, it is.

Many pilgrimages have been undertaken by pilgrims (obviously) to sites of holy or historical significance; sometimes in celebration or in observation of dates or past events. They can venture to the unknown (think the New World) or to very familiar places (think Jerusalem or Lourdes).

Or they can serve to re-charge one’s battery, so to speak. To savor the sustenance one expects to be waiting. To commune in a way unavailable elsewhere.

I will re-create the experience for those of you not from bumpy lands. I was born in New York City, where all the peaks are of stone, but piled up by man, not God. (Ask me about trips to Bavaria and Switzerland and Austria sometime, too.) You arrive in Denver, nestled in mountains a mile high. You drive to Estes Park, a frontier-flavored town half again as high above sea level. Local landmarks are the Stanley Hotel and the sprawling YMCA retreat and conference center, which hosts the writers’ conference. And, of course, 360 degrees of mountains, snow-capped year-‘round.

Every year after the conference a few faculty members and friends make the trek upward – so it seems, straight up! Past the Theodore Roosevelt National Forest, into the Rocky Mountain National Park, passing scattered cabins and lazy elk and deer, we climb farther, into thinner air. The deciduous trees disappear; we are above the pine line. Soon, even the pine trees can grow no more, and there are only strange scrub plants, jagged rocks, and frozen snow.

At summits you stop to walk – carefully and slowly, because the thin air ensures that you easily become winded. If the temperatures are cold, even when you see your breath, you still shed jackets and sweaters because the sun strangely compensates. At these levels, discreet signage informs you of the height; of the fact that nearby snow scarcely melts and might be many years old; and strictly warns against stepping on the only discernible vegetation: lichens and moss. The organisms, actually not related to each other, form greenish shadows on rocks, and – as the signs warn – can take hundreds of years to reestablish themselves if stepped on and destroyed.

As high as I and my friends have ever ventured, there are always peaks not far away (probably many miles!) that reach higher. Birds with magnificent wing-spreads float above, not having to flap their wings, seemingly ever, as they catch the upward wind drafts. We stand at cliffs’ edges and look down, down, down, seeing four-legged animals we can hardly distinguish, gaily leaping between precarious peaks.

One year, in glaring sunlight and amidst unearthly silence, our group beheld these scenes and someone started singing the old hymn, “This Is My Father’s World.” One by one, everybody joined in.

“This is my Father’s world, And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and ‘round me rings The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.”

Perfect-seeming. A natural setting, an appropriate response, a love song to God as He has revealed Himself. Who would not have the same reaction?

Very few of us, that’s who. Yet God, I think, would have us remember that such glorious scenery can be seductive; pristine nature is only part of the Father’s world. I believe God would have us remember two categories of truths that easily elude us, especially after we plan pilgrimages or encounter the stunning beauty of Creation.

The first category of truths – reminders, I will call them – is comprised of realities that are as hard and sharp as those of mountains. We can occasionally drive away from, but not escape, the concurrent existence of sickness and disease; of hate and sorrow; of wars and rumors of wars; of crying mothers and crying orphans; of abused women and aborted babies; of poverty and injustice; of persecution and oppression; of pollution and waste; of prejudice and corruption; of slums and poverty; of greed and envy; of empty hope and no faith. All around us.

THESE are also parts of my Father’s world. Just as much as pretty landscapes and joy-filled nature.

The second category of reminders, no less significant in God’s plan, tells us that the first category is not a random list of uncomfortable truths. Rather, they are God’s checklist of matters we must address. Christians are familiar with forebears who knew about the Promised Land. All of Creation once looked like the snow-capped Rockies. The Garden of Eden we know. The Land of Beulah was sought in Old Testament days as representing a virtual marriage feast, preparing for fellowship with the Lord.

Heaven has been described to us: The land of milk and honey, where sorrows shall cease, where joys will never end, where the buildings shall be as mansions prepared for us. If it were not so He would not have told us.

But the pathway there requires all of us to climb down those mountains, often to dwell in dark valleys. Vales of tears, usually. Valleys of the shadows of death. We will not merely encounter unpleasant things in life: we must confront and do battle with them. God’s work must be our own. We must wrestle with more than flesh and blood “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Not a warning; not an option; more like a prediction; in fact a promise from God. These are not assignments to win God’s favor. They are simply the duties of a follower of Christ.

In fact, they are privileges.

To care for those who hurt, to minister to their souls as well as their bodies, is what Christians do. Not often enough, maybe… but it is what we do. To comfort, to feed and clothe, to sacrifice and serve, to share Christ and to BE Christ; to love. To love.

Marlene Bagnull, Director of the conference in Estes Park, always remembers among the hubbub of seminars and programs and fellowship, to highlight two missions programs each year; one at home, one overseas. Truly, it is meet and right so to do. The work God gives us is as likely to be halfway around His world as across our hometowns.

And surely those tasks are also in our neighbors’ houses; in our schools and offices; in the hallways and bedrooms of our own homes. These places, these people, these problems… are all squarely in “My Father’s World,” too. As we redeem His people, we redeem His planet. His world. Let us all remember every corner of creation; pleasant and – for the moment – unpleasant. By the way, Earth Day is not a celebration of Mother Nature but Father God, Creator.

“This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world. The battle is not done.
Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and Heaven be one.”

+ + +

Click the embedded link to learn more about the Colorado Writer’s conference.

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Click: This Is My Father’s World

The Stones, Not the Cathedrals

4-18-16

We should always be growing as Christians. In fact we should grow in all aspects of our lives: a dead curiosity, an atrophied sense of adventure, are mere reflections of a life winding down. We SHOULD keep growing in our life activities, but our faith MUST keep growing.

Faith is not the destination, after all. We recently shared that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This verse that opens Hebrews 11 – the “Hall of Fame of Faith” – confirms that we keep hoping as we keep believing.

In the six years or so that I have been offering these blog essays, and have been carried by RealClearReligion.org, which sadly is closing up shop, I have not so much lectured, as learned. That is how ministry is supposed to work. You gain insights more than fashion them; you are blessed more than you bless; the responses from random readers, usually unknown to me, have kept me humble, and have strengthened my faith.

Humility is one of the bedrocks – one of the cornerstones – of Christianity.

To be used of God is what we must seek, fervently. There is a seduction to compose mighty messages and memorable sermons. We – the contemporary church, especially in the West – have a frequent sense of urgency to seize the moments. To gather everyone we can into church or small groups or para-church or youth ministry. To “close every deal.”

In fact that is the job of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said so. It is our job, rather, not to subvert the work of the Holy Ghost, but to plant seeds. Let the Spirit nurture and harvest.

Humility.

How often do we realize that, in our scrambling to “reach” others, that maybe God grieves that we neglect ourselves – our own souls, our own spiritual growth, our very salvation? Jesus died and rose for us… not our programs, our ministries, our notches on a spiritual belt.

Humility.

How often do we realize that for all the good we do, for all the myriad aspects of our spiritual lives, that God’s call on our lives – one Mission that is pre-eminent in His eyes – might be ONE encounter, one person, one circumstance where He has placed us?

Humility.

In that sense I have come to an increasing awareness that we all are “mere” stones. Rough-hewn, seemingly not significant, almost interchangeable, in life. But in God’s view, indispensible! Mighty, God-glorifying cathedrals are built stone upon stone upon stone. Usually rough, or seemingly indistinguishable one from another.

But after the cornerstone who is Christ, those stones, piled correctly, and high, and interlocking, ultimately make a cathedral.

But if some are defective, or arranged wrongly, or missing… the cathedral collapses. Our profiles are humble. Our roles, however, are vital. We must see ourselves in this perspective. God resists the proud, but exalts the humble. Just as importantly, however, we must see others, and all of life’s work, in this manner also.

I always reminded my children that not every student who does scales becomes a great violinist; few do. But EVERY great violinist, without exception, began by doing scales. There is a humble way to “do” life that our contemporary culture fights against. Try-it-all, taste-it-all, do-it-all is not a formula for success… nor happiness. The Bible warns against the allure of “wine, women, and song.” You know the rest of the verse: “… for tomorrow you die.”

So, fellow “stones.” In humility let realize our roles, and not exalt ourselves or our meager efforts, even on behalf of the King. Later in that chapter of Hebrews we are reminded of Abraham, who properly “looked for a city, whose builder and maker is the Lord.” In humility let us anoint our writing, our ministries, our… appointments God has arranged for us.

In humility let us rejoice in the work we can do. It’s is God’s work, after all; not our own. Some day, here or on the other side, we will look up, and look around, see what a mighty spiritual edifice we have been blessed to be part of.

And keep in your mind that Jesus said that even if the world withholds its praise of Him, “even the stones would cry out”!

+ + +

This is a valedictory of sorts to Real Clear Religion, which has seemed to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare: news, sermons, surveys, essays, so much more. Jeremy Lott and Nicholas Hahn were superb editors, and generous to share MMMM every week for years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please continue to receive our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.) May God bless all you “stones”… even pebbles, such as “who am I.”

Click: Who Am I

The Quick and the Dead

4-4-16

My cousin Irene called this week to tell me that her brother Paul died. He had been a longtime victim of Alzheimer’s – technically, frontal-lobe dementia. My late wife showed signs of Lewy-Body Syndrome, another relative of Alzheimer’s. Do you ever get the feeling that we humans are not getting healthier, but merely sustaining more specialized ailments? Anyway, a sad phone call turned less sad – we were able to summon some chuckles as we shared memories. Memories are the best ointments in such circumstances.

This last week I reached out to two friends who are beset by cancer. Old friends from the cartooning world, one of whom I met when I was 13 and encouraged me to follow that profession. He is, happily, in part to blame, because I did. We kept in touch through the years; became near-neighbors; and worked on many projects together. He is now in home-hospice care. Our call went longer than his son thought it would – filled with silly memories, old friends, doing voices, finding humor in his grim prognosis. Laughter is the best ointment in such situations.

My other cartooning friend is battling a rare form of cancer that has taken him to several states for opinions. If you wonder whether his “journey” is fodder for ironic observations, even rim-shot lines, you would be correct; and he continues to write gags and a weekly newspaper column. When I was out East a few months ago, we talked about old friends and new revelations – he always has been a philosopher masquerading as a cartoonist – and his dear wife was surprised at his energy that afternoon. No surprise, really: friendships are the best ointments in such situations.

This all might seem gloomy to some, but that’s only because it IS gloomy. But only partly. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure. … Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life…” When face-to-face with the illness or death of a loved one or a good friend, it occurs to us how ultimately selfish or sadness and sorrow actually is.

WE grieve; WE miss the person; WE have to face the empty spaces. Of course, that is a skewed definition of selfishness, but we should also be aware of the peace that a sick person yearns for. Of the “life well lived” that should be celebrated. Of the home in Heaven that – if we are Christians – we should rejoice has been prepared.

It was only a couple of decades ago that I became aware, or rather participated in, “home-going” services. In the Black church, in Pentecostal churches, funerals are transformed to celebrations. Joyous laughter, happy songs, encouraging sermons. Our loved ones, our friends, are in Heaven; how can we be sad? This is genuine, and it is proper. Appropriate for the situation, and uplifting for those who remain.

All this is the case, and sweet if we may experience it as something new, only if we are in fact Christians. Otherwise these are empty charades. After all, if Christ had not conquered death Himself, our faith is in vain; there is no Heaven. Many church-goers are not comfortable with “sharing Jesus.” I understand this; I identify with this. But if you had a cure for the cancer or dementia we loathe so, would you not share THAT with those who are afflicted? Why in hell do we go through the motions of being “Christians” if we are so hesitant and ashamed to share Jesus? Excuse me for being literal.

These thoughts have come to me by a coincidence of circumstances this week, and ironic as they closely follow Easter.

But I am grateful to have my heart turned to the Gospel, and to the Resurrection, in a new way. I often have wondered about those 40 days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. We don’t know much about things Jesus did. The Bible says He taught and healed, but with few specifics. Contemporary historians recorded sightings and appearances, but no quotations. The last words of the last Gospel (John 21:25) tells us, “Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.” But we don’t know them all.

I am curious, but not disappointed. At that point, it was the FACT of Jesus, and the truth of the Resurrection, that were important. He had done His teaching. The people had sought Him out. Now it was His time to seek people.

As busy as He must have been those 40 days, I have a picture in my mind of Jesus alone, also, maybe when darkness fell, down lonely paths, maybe through storms and cold silences, walking the dark hills, not responding to the curious crowds, but seeking out the troubled and the hurting individuals. The sick of body and mind. Those who did not yet know Him.

This is a plausible picture, because Jesus still does this today.

He walks the dark hills, looking for us – piercing the gloom with a joyful hope that may be ours. And it is especially the case, I believe, if you are one of those people who is skeptical, or has “heard enough,” or cannot crack the shell of hurt or pain or resentment or rebellion or fear, or all the other hindrances that prevent us from experiencing the love of Christ. He is closer than a shadow, no matter what you think, or what you might prefer to believe.

He shared of Himself. We should share Him with others. With friends, loved ones, strangers. Jesus Christ died for all of us… but He also died for EACH of us.

“God walks the dark hills, To guide our footsteps. He walks everywhere, By night and by day. He walks in the silence, On down the highway; God walks the dark hills, To show us the way.”

+ + +

A favorite of gospel music is the haunting “God Walks the Dark Hills,” embodying mystery in its origin. It was written by a lady named Audra Czarnikow, who lived in Liberty, OK. Little is known about her; she apparently wrote no other hymns or songs. Small groups sang her song, and others recorded it; eventually it became a favorite of many people. Here it is sung by the appropriately haunting voice of Iris DeMent; image display by the incomparable beanscot channel.

Click: God Walks the Dark Hills

Through Death to Life: Two Stories

3-7-16

My good friend Cyndy Hack forwarded an internet message this week, the kind that make the rounds. It is a story behind the writing of a hymn. A book of such stories is something I wanted to write almost 20 years ago… before dozens of such books eventually were published! The amusing aspect of these stories, these books, is that (with all good intentions) some of the stories about the same hymns and gospel songs are quite different!

The story that Cyndy forwarded is about the writing of the great Gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

Rev Thomas A Dorsey wrote that song some 85 years ago. The circumstances as he later related: He left Chicago to visit a revival service in St Louis. His pregnant wife Nettie was due to give birth some time soon after his scheduled return. When he arrived in St Louis, however, he received a message that his wife had died in childbirth. He rushed home, where two days later his baby boy also died.

Disconsolate and bitter, he yelled at God and cried to God, and a friend, hearing how he addressed the Lord, remonstrated and told Dorsey to say, “Precious Lord.” Almost immediately the words and music of that great song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” came to his mind.

It has become a standard in hymnals of the Black church and evangelical White churches; and in recorded music, touching millions, in familiar versions by Mahalia Jackson to Johnny Cash, sung at the funerals of Martin Luther King, Jr., and US presidents. It is Dorsey’s most popular gospel song, except, possibly, for “Peace in Valley,” recorded by Elvis Presley, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and many others.

But Tom Dorsey began his career better known for blues, jazz, and “juke” music, raunchy songs that made him rich and famous. He was associated with blues legend Ma Rainey, and had one of the first best-selling records in 1928 with “Tight Like That.” In those days he was known as Georgia Tom and Barrelhouse Tom.

In 1930 his wife and son died. And his own soul was reborn.

The internet story I received was about the song, and the circumstances of its composition… but focused on the “little-known fact” that Big Band leader Tommy Dorsey had this story as part of his autobiography. Actually, all he had was the same name as Thomas A Dorsey. Never a Christian music-maker, Tommy Dorsey was already a famous jazz musician by 1930 in a big band with his brother Jimmy. But… sometimes “viral” stories are false-positives.

Also this week, millions of people learned of the death of Joey Martin Feek, the distaff member of Joey+Rory, the country/ gospel/ bluegrass duo. Millions of their fans were shocked by not surprised at the death of the 40-year-old singer, who fought a valiant battle with cervical cancer.

The performing couple had seemed to come out of nowhere. They won Grammy awards and attracted a following among fans of traditional music – and traditional lifestyles. Joey and Rory remained close to the land, raising food on their farm amidst growing demands of their musical lives. Around the time of her cancer diagnosis, Joey gave birth to a little girl, Indiana, with Down Syndrome.

The internet giveth: fans and strangers by the multitudes began following the careers; the anguish and joys of motherhood; the horrible diagnosis, prognosis, and defiance of cancer; and Joey’s last days… in the hospital, recording at home, holding Indie till the end.

Joey Feek lost her hair and her weight but she never lost her faith.

Her husband Rory posted this week: “My wife’s greatest dream came true today. She is in Heaven. The cancer is gone, the pain has ceased and all her tears are dry…. At 2:30 this afternoon, as we were gathered around her, holding hands and praying, my precious bride breathed her last. And a moment later took her first breath on the other side.

“When a person has been through as much pain and struggle as Joey’s been through, you just want it to be over. You want them to not have to hurt anymore, more that you want them to stay with you. And so, it makes the hard job of saying goodbye just a little easier.”

“Coincidentally,” when Cyndy forwarded the internet account of Tom Dorsey, it was the day that Joey Feek died… and I remembered that one of Joey+Rory’s favorite songs and biggest hits was their version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” I share it here.

Two music makers, their stories united by the same Gospel song. Two stories of Christians’ trials, and triumphs, ironically motivated by grim death. Circumstances that could discourage… but, instead, they inspire!

Different versions, different stories, different life experiences… but the same Savior! The same hope! The same sweet fellowship.

+ + +

Click: Take My Hand, Precious Lord

Stop.

2-29-16

Just for a moment, stop. Savor the good; calculate the not-so-good. We must live our lives, even as the culture tells us to put on costumes and spout lines, letting our selves go past our eyes as if we were spectators, not the players. We, all of us, go around and around and around in our worlds, always meaning to start, or finish, something or other.

Parents know: running kids from here to there and back again. Activities. They’ve got to enjoy themselves, right? But how often do they enjoy talking to their parents… talking with their parents? How many times have you returned from a vacation, feeling that now you REALLY need a rest; whew!?! Even leisure has become an industry.

A while ago I wrote an essay based on Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” in which I suggested that great wisdom comes from a deliberate parsing: “Be.” “Be still.” “Be still and know.” “Be still, and know that I am.” “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Profound wisdom in each portion, each inviting deep contemplation – maybe a lifetime’s! Yet the essence that we of the 21st century take away is the admonition to be still. It is hard to hear God above the noise. It also is difficult to hear ourselves above the noise.

And when that happens, we stop even trying to listen to ourselves. In the next step – a downward step on a spiral staircase, I’m afraid – we finally stop talking to ourselves. Not talking to ourselves like mad people do, but conversations with the “inner selves” God has placed in our make-ups. Our creative selves. To stop that, I believe, is a sin.

When God created mankind, He made them in the likeness of God. (Genesis 5:1)

The question of listening to ourselves, to responding to the “creative spark,” is something that long interested me. My father, a polymath and omnivorous reader, encouraged me to draw and paint and write; to love music and art and history. But I came to realize that our earthly fathers and mothers only can cultivate such interests. It is our Heavenly Father who plants the seeds.

For a while, as a baby Christian, I was persuaded by some people that we are rebellious if we claim to create anything – that Only God can create, and that nothing can be created that is not of Him already. Pretty soon I realized that this is only a word game; and, when that game is played, it would rob the Lord of one of His great joys. He is Creator-God, yes; but when creating us in His image, He puts creativity within us!

If we are to be “imitators of Christ” in our standards and actions, so we can be imitators of God, and seek to create in His spirit; to dream and imagine, and dare. Attempting the likeness of God’s very creativity, we can seek perfection, look for beauty, and bless others.

We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

I humbly suggest that in God’s eyes, “good works” are more than sharing Christ and being charitable. It is good work indeed to be all that God intended you to be, to fulfill the creativity wherewith He graced you. To me, it comes close to insulting God to dismiss the talent and imagination you have – and Yes, you have gifts; we all do.

If you doubt, this is when you should stop and be especially quiet, and listen for the Holy Spirit, and to the voice of your creative self. My daughter Emily is tenfold more talented than I, and she draws and paints and writes, beautifully. She has proposed collaborating on a children’s book with her Pop – can anything honor a father more? She has dreamed, lately, of opening a restaurant. When life intrudes, as it will, creativity just sprouts elsewhere, like the pretty shoots and buds and reeds appear every spring, sometimes in the most surprising places. Emily now is designing a website about cooking and baking and serving others through kitchen-fun.

Another Hero of Creativity, and a poster child for quietly listening, obeying, and sharing God’s spark in her life, is Eva Cassidy. I only learned of her from friends in Ireland, where her acclaim commenced after her death. A singer born in the Washington DC area, she played in local clubs and made only a few recordings, partly because she loved so many genres she was hard to categorize; partly because she was intensely shy. But… she was warmed by that creative spark.

Her performances were astonishing. Just past 30 years of age she died, suddenly, of melanoma cancer. After a few years her tapes made it to England, where, played on the BBC, her songs suddenly topped the charts. Eventually her music sold millions, in the UK, Ireland, throughout Europe, and back in the USA.

I cannot listen to her without getting teary. Not just her voice and interpretations. But her example. She stopped and savored life, with the stereotypical obsession to be a superstar; but she sang to please others, where she was, with what she had. She listened; she loved God; she dared to step out. She sang because she loved to. She mastered her craft and surrendered to her heart – when, today, most of us try our hardest to do the opposite, often failing at both.

“How lucky am I,” she once said, “to just do what I love: play the guitar and sing songs.” How many of us can savor the satisfaction of doing what we really love… and really loving what we do?

There’s the pursuit, and often the attainment, of happiness. That is one way to please God. It is not selfish: it is doing what He has prepared you to do. Go thou and create!

+ + +

Eva Cassidy died in 1996. The Georgian/Northern Irish/British singer Katie Melua is about as old now as Eva when she died; they never met. However through the creative use of technology, they have performed duets, sensitive and powerful in their beauty. Eva’s “half” is from a serendipitous video-cam capture of a performance 20 years ago. Stop and watch and listen.

Click: What a Wonderful World

A Revolutionary Way To Do Church

2-1-16

First, I want to state that I generally do not like phrases like “doing church”; I might prefer “being church,” but that debate is for another essay. “Doing church” is in the parlance of many of the people I want to address here.

Our two previous essays have enabled me to vent (I hope not rant) about trends in contemporary American churches. Worship music that is neither, as I put it; styles that are alien to many church-goers; abandonment of hymnals, songsheets, and printed music to follow; lyrics that often are “me-oriented” and not praising God. The subsequent message criticized services that have no form or structure; and how “spontaneity,” otherwise a worthwhile goal, has itself become a paradigm as rigid as the dogmatism it rejects.

I here will close those subjects, or least my prescriptions, because I do not want merely to be a scold, but rather a man in the arena on a topic I consider vital to Christendom today. A third aspect.

In America, parts of Christianity suffer from the seduction of… well, America. I mean the American character as it has evolved: sound-bite attention spans, instant gratification, an affection for glitz and multi-media entertainment. As churches worry about losing members, attracting new ones, and serving youth, there are inducements to throw out old bath water. Without recalling the second half of that cliché.

Our culture has engendered a pick-and-choose approach to worship and music styles… and, not ironically but tragically, a similar theological menu. Pick and choose the verses to obey. Have your religion conform to your attitudes. Justify your problems, and your family’s challenges, by selecting the right Bible passages. Presume to know what Jesus thought, despite what He said. These attitudes are very common in America today.

If Christianity has moved “outside the box,” and free-form worship is the symptom, I will suggest that we can get things in order… make sense of faith by making religion be sensible again… return to the comfort, security, and spiritual value of meaningful worship practices.

So: Some suggestions for “doing church” in a revolutionary way, and, I think, potentially very interesting for all shades of the religious spectrum.

* Design services so that, as they unfold, every aspect of Jesus’s life and ministry be represented. That is, by prayers, readings, music, perhaps dramatic presentations or testimonies, part after part of the service would be a reminder of Old Testament prophesies, the Incarnation, Jesus’s teaching, His persecution, suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection; all – in various ways – informing meditations, prayers, and worship.

* Be intentional about the music during the service. Some can be performance, but also value the spiritual joy in congregational singing. Mix the old and new. Encourage artistry and creativity – even to drama, poetry, special art. Remember that “worship” is derived from “worth-ship.” God is worthy of praise; everything we do should be worthy of Him. Revolutionary: invite Him to speak to us through worship.

* Speaking of art, re-fit the worship area with symbols of Christianity. Many contemporary churches behave like the stern, churchy iconoclasts of old. Celebrate the cross! Resurrect (ha) the meaningful symbols of the church – the rose, doves, a flowing river, Trinitarian designs. Be colorful, as stained-glass windows were!

* Of course, retain the sermon; but too often these days, except for holidays, sermons are random messages amid random music. Make everything integrated, and complementary, and thematically unified. Have the soloist or worship band (who I don’t want to banish; just be focused) write or perform other songs germane to the theme of the season or the sermon. The same with music while worshipers seat themselves; between parts of the service; during communion… all intentional as to the spiritual topic.

Does this sound revolutionary? Certainly a change from the services in a lot of contemporary churches! More exciting? More meaningful? More chance for involvement, from the pews to the worship? Closer to what church should be. Yes.

But, as some of you might recognize, I have not described anything new, or even Post-Modern, but something very old – the basic forms of worship, orders of the service, and worship environment, of churches going back almost 2000 years. It worked, it was cherished, it was valuable. More than mere corporate fellowship, it traditionally was a fulfillment of planned meditation, worship, prayer and petitions, joy and spiritual renewal. Too often, in too many places, it has been lost.

If believers want to gather with friends to share, follow no special forms of praise or songs, they can join in home fellowships and small groups. The first-century Christians did. If Christians want to listen to a concert of Christian music, they can go to concerts or buy CDs. Church – the “doing,” not the building – is indeed a “service.” We serve God, and in Liturgical traditions, it was believed that in a mystical way, God meets and serves us through organized worship.

That is what I have meant by “the Logic of Liturgy.”

The traditional parts of the service, in their Latin names, meant specific things, reminders of Christ. Exactly like the Creeds remind us, point by point, of the essentials of our faith. Through the centuries (and surviving in some liturgical traditions) the parts of the service included these – their Latin names, although no longer sung in Latin, and what they celebrated:

Introit (Entrance); Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy; asking to be blessed); Gloria (Praise to God, recalling Jesus’s birth); Allelujah; Sanctus (“Holy,” with special emphasis in Communion services); Pax Domini (“The Peace of God”); Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, focusing on Jesus’s sacrifice); Nunc Dimittis (“Now we dismiss,” with words quoting Simeon, “We have seen Thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people”); Benediction (“Now let us Thy servants depart in peace”).

With a few variations between faith traditions, these parts comprised the worship services of Christians wherever they gathered across the world for most of two millennia. Throughout, of course, at appropriate places, are the three readings (Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel); a Creed; hymns; the sermon or homily; the Lord’s Prayer; and offering with offertory music.

In addition, throughout history’s churches, every image, every symbol, every color represented something in the story of Christ or the church calendar. Literally, every wall and corner of churches shouted and sang the Gospel message! Worshipers understood all this. Stained-glass windows were not mere colorful decorations: they were graphic novels of spiritual content.

I profoundly believe that a return to this blueprint of worship would unite various faiths and trigger a revival in today’s church. John Paul II said that the future starts today, not tomorrow. In my essay I suggest that today can only have validity if we recognize that it started yesterday. We can honor strict customs, or be innovative within the boundaries. We can be mystical, “contemporary-sounding,” or in ethnic traditions. We can dance in the Spirit, or kneel in the pews. No matter if we fold our hands or lift our arms. There has to be nothing lockstep about the walk down this path! Old hymns or modern songs; strict readings or creative new wording; traditional spoken sermons or multi-media messages – why not? But… staying accessible to worshipers helps God be accessible to our yearning hearts.

Returning to my first thesis, that a lot of contemporary worship music is neither: in such a back-to-the-basics shift that I suggest, worship leaders would not merely be kids in the church who have talent and volunteer to perform. The position of Worship Leader should be restored as a vital component of a church staff, a pastoral responsibility. Someone who not only performs, but ministers.

The American Syndrome is that we tend to reject the past because it is over. We cheat ourselves and defy history’s lessons – our DNA, so to speak; cultural and spiritual. We need to cherish what is good in the past. We must build on it. It is the basis of wisdom. And a means to connect, or re-connect, with the Heart of God.

+ + +

Our vid clip this week is not a commercial! It is a documentary explaining the devotion of one American church that has embraced “ancient” liturgy. Even more than many liturgical churches, Grace Lutheran Church, Tulsa, practices “high-church” traditions – the sign of the Cross, incense, votive candles. But the faces of the young and old congregants, and the pastors’ explanations of liturgy, sum up what we have been saying in these messages.

Click: The Logic of Liturgy

Christianity’s Towers of Babel

1-25-16

Last week’s essay on “worshiptainment,” Worship Music That Is Neither, excited quite a bit of notice and debate across the spectrum. It was picked up by many websites and newsletters, posted and re-posted on Facebook, and promises to be, I am told, the subject of sermons and small-group discussions.

In the essay I addressed the form of musical worship that has overtaken many mainstream-denomination, independent, and “mega” churches. Worshipers singing hymns have been replaced by performance musicians; organs and pianos by guitars and drums; hymnals and songbooks by words roughly projected on screens. Worshipers now are audiences. Congregational singing is optional, effectively discouraged.

I have been in uncountable churches where MCs tell everyone when to smile, when to clap, and to repeat “Good Morning!” if not yelled loudly enough. Dissent from such was the thrust of my essay.

The problem – my point – is that what is represented as free-form worship, in their own way, is more regimented than Medieval chants or sitting under Jonathan Edwards sermons. Congregants do not feel parts of a congregation, communicants cannot commune, and some people who go to church to find their still, small corner… find no corners. Some people yearn for church not for pep rallies, but needing to weep quiet, sincere tears; or to lay on their faces, as it were, at the altar. Not smile on cue, wave, and jump in place. To go out and face the world refreshed, not to see face-painters and cappuccino stands in the parking lot.

We should be discomfited by more than music and worship paradigms in large swaths of today’s church, however. A virtual Tower of Babel within the church it seems, but is not necessarily bad, nor unprecedented. In ancient times, the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity developed along local preferences and traditions. Resistance to Papal authority actually began centuries before Luther. During the height of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and, yes, the Counter-Counter-Reformation, churches affixed themselves to varying worship modes.

… but, within Christendom, they were modes and styles – very seldom, aside from the role of the Pope, dissension about basic doctrine. Luther, in fact, did not want to leave the Catholic Church. J. S. Bach, the “Fifth Evangelist,’ hymnist of the Protestant Affirmation, was proudest among his 1800 works (approximately 1200 of which have survived) of his B-minor Mass – a Catholic mass.

And so forth. With few exceptions (Salem, the Inquisition) the internal battles of Christendom – the Thirty Years’ War; Tudors vs. Stuarts in England; the “Troubles” in Ireland – are tattooed with religious arguments and justifications in history books. But almost all of these were political or economic or military or geographical or personal wars, fought under the convenient banners of Christian exegeses.

I have been to Northern Ireland. I have spoken with many who survived the Troubles. Many who are now reconciled, many who buried relatives killed by those they now call friends. Virtually none fought over transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation, back in the day. People simply preferred to hate. Christ’s love covered all… when it was accepted.

My point is that all these groups, over history, that I have named (including the Orthodox communities, about we in the West know little) were remarkably similar in worship settings. The peripheral things (hate, politics, rivalries) clearly and ironically were separate from the central spiritual core.

That is, worship was to the same God, the same Savior, using the same Bible… and virtually the same worship. The early “Church Fathers” met, and prayed, and fashioned creeds – to codify the basics of Christian belief; to combat heresies, and to spread the Word. Similarly, they designed a template of worship – to, likewise, have the worship service address, in its part after part, the essentials of the faith.

There is a Logic to Liturgy.

Liturgy is the order of service, designed to address and remind worshipers of the essential doctrines of faith. You can listen to recordings of recreated services of the 5th-century churches, and identify the orders, and even the (translated) words of the service, if you were reared in a 20th-century liturgical church. The orders, words, chants, prayers, invocations, responses of the Catholic Mass of 500 years ago, are substantially as today (or pre-Vatican II); substantially as services in Lutheran, Anglican, and High Episcopal services.

I have visited churches throughout Europe where I did not know the local language, yet I knew the liturgical melodies, and the order within the services, as if I did. I knew what was being prayed, celebrated, petitioned. That is how it has been… and, I submit, should still be.

In liturgical churches these traditions survive, even if sometimes barely. In Evangelical churches, there might be free-form worship, but usually in a prescribed format each Sunday. Quakers have had their own traditions. And Pentecostals frequently invite the Holy Spirit to move over a service.

So, I understand, and I hope readers do, that my unease with contemporary worship music is not based on reactionary devotion to ancient and dry music (which traditional music of the church is not!). We see that, for 2000 years, Christians at all times and in all places have inherited and exercised the essence, if not the forms, of worship.

What is new in our times, in Post-Modern services, is content (or, today, the dearth of content) – has changed or disappeared in many churches. To many observers, it honors God less, and “self” more; it is less about the message of Jesus and more about the massage of ego.

I know the complaints about traditional church music, about liturgy. About dry sermons. About “everything from the book.” I know the complaints because I shared them. When I was young, I noticed that grownups in pews around me droned through the Settings – the printed orders of service. Those routines seldom changed; virtually only on Communion Sundays or a few holidays intruded.

Everyone could recite the long petitions in their sleep. I know. I saw it on Sunday mornings. I still can myself, never setting out to memorize the passages. Just like ministers and priests (you see it on TV, maybe when the Senate is called to order, or a president is buried) reading prayers. Shouldn’t they be familiar enough with God by now to pray extemporaneously?!?

So. I concluded, and many still might, to reject ordered tradition, to conclude that rites can become rituals can become rote. Empty repetition. Spiritually empty. Sure: that is the danger.

But, today, my argument is – and it has taken us a generation or two to recognize this – that spontaneity can grow just as empty.

“Free form worship” can become as programmed as printed liturgy.

“Forced spontaneity” is an oxymoron. It is what we bring, not what we receive, that makes for worship.

Contemporary “praise music,” un-programmed services, and the Post-Modern church can grow just as cold as anything. Colder, when Jesus is absent from the Focus as well as the Form.

If many parts of the contemporary church have morphed from hymns to concert performances, I fervently pray that those talented musicians simply would perform in concerts! Many of them do; more of them should. Worship in church is different than attending a concert, no offense meant. There is a Logic to Liturgy.

And there is a 2000-year-old tradition to resume.

+ + +

No organ, no church pews. But, performance that is inclusive. Worship and praise that worships the Lord and praises Him… and uplifts musical worshipers. The great gospel song of Fanny Crosby. Blind nearly since birth, she began writing hymns at age 40, and wrote approximately 8000 before she died. Her music has blessed worshipers in church… and concert-goers in great auditorium like London’s Royal Albert Hall. A BBC concert.

Click: To God Be the Glory

When Worship Music is Neither

1-18-16

My wife and I were a little late for church one Sunday in San Diego about 10 years ago. In the lobby we saw an elderly lady, frail and looking lonely, sitting against the wall. We paused to ask if she needed assistance.

“No,” she explained, “I always wait out here until that awful rock and roll stops. It’s always so loud, and I still can’t hear the words or sing along.”

That poor lady’s reply encapsulated something I had felt, myself, for a long time; and even more so in subsequent years. I have groused before friends and in speeches. I have listened to laymen and argued with pastors and worship leaders. These are not the words of a cranky music critic, but from someone who is concerned that church music in America has morphed from Worship to Watching; from Praise to Performance; turning the congregational worshippers into concert audiences.

It is not even a matter of wanting arbitrarily to preserve ancient music and traditional hymns – my readers know that I enthusiastically offer up Christian music from chants of the Middle Ages to Southern and Black gospel. Rather, the transformation of church music says something about the culture in general – not just our expressions of spirituality. It reveals something that should have us troubled.

The transformation of church music across the American landscape (not in every church; but every Christian will know what I mean) has been rapid and fundamental. It goes to the notion of corporate worship. It is essential to our identification as believers in God and followers of Christ. It is a manifestation of the nature of our faith, the validity of faithfulness, the object of our faith.

Well before I encountered that “orphaned” elderly lady a decade ago, I was talking about this general topic to Dr Bill Bright, founder of the mighty organization Campus Crusade for Christ. Agreeing with my critique, he referred to “7-11 music,” which I assumed meant the ubiquitous Muzak we hear in stores and elevators. But he said he meant church music that repeated the same seven words 11 times. That states the formula.

In formal terms, hymns are sermons in song, stating biblical themes or exhortations. Look at the words of traditional hymns: they describe the situation of the world and the position of Christians in it; challenged, threatened, but hopeful. The difference with songs – gospel songs, revival tunes, camp-meeting music – is more than the simpler harmonies and popular melodies. Gospel songs that live today in white Southern Gospel and Black Spirituals feature choruses to which singers return between verses.

The “contemporary” “worship” music we refer to here is similar to the earlier forms… but far different. Some of it purports to praise God, but its praise is diluted by the lack of focus or substance, characterized by those endlessly repeated lines. In truth, much of it is “me” oriented. Examine lyrics and see how often the first-person pronoun “I” is used. The emphasis is on the singer (more than God?), on how we feel (instead of worshiping or understanding Him), or what we receive from the musical experience.

None of these impulses is wholly bad. Of course. But the up-ending of church music does not end there.

In the Apostolic days of the young church, music was not particularly encouraged. Saint Cecilia reversed that attitude (and is honored as the Patron Saint of Music) and for a thousand years or so, music accompanied worship. Sometimes somber, sometimes joyously, eventually in certain liturgical orders. In Luther’s time the congregation was encouraged to sing, in ever-expanding portions of the service; beyond chanting and the liturgy, to hymns. For almost half a millennium, church music has included settings of the service; cantatas; anthems; choruses; and hymns. And it has been inclusive of worshipers… an integral part of our service, our worship.

But the new music that has overtaken traditions so quickly has done more than supplant Luther, Wesley, and Fanny Crosby with Pop, Folk, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. It has changed the essence of music’s role in Christian worship.

Plugging in the amps has unplugged the purpose of musical worship.

From that AG church in San Diego to my daughter’s Lutheran mega-church in Michigan, from “Seeker-Sensitive” churches in the heartland to evangelical churches in the South, the stages are set the same:

Worship leaders who instruct the listeners when to smile, when to clap, when to stop and hug their neighbors;

Musicians who wear casual, even dirty, clothes;

Solo singers who attract the spotlight, musicians who take “hot licks” between the choruses;

Words sometimes projected on screens – never the music, never the music, which leaves newcomers confused and makes the words confusing;

Hymnals are almost regarded as toxic relics, and printed songsheets without music are worthless… but they would serve futile purposes anyway, because few people sing in their seats (or, when instructed to do so, standing);

Audiences – because that is what they literally have become – seldom sing. They might clap and sway; and, in some churches, raise their hands. But they are audience members of Sunday-morning concerts, plain and simple.

Do you disagree? See how often these audiences applaud after each performance’s song (it used to be anathema to applaud in a church). Take note of the elaborate (if deceptively sparse) staging and sets; the lighting, the video effects, the close-ups where cameras “kiss” the soloists. Listen to your neighbors’ comments about the singer’s voice or the guitarist’s solo riffs (compared to the comments on the sermon).

Too many of us are going to shows, not church. We savor presentations, not prayers. We are presented with performers, and we are less concerned with seeking the Savior. People are encouraged to love the worship… but how often to love Jesus?

Yet the formula is followed as rigid dogma would be: drums, loud solos, emotional effects, a concert atmosphere, sloppy dressers, regimented applause. Who needs those old hymns? OK, they touched people and turned souls to Christ for 500 years? But… this is the 21 century!

These churches reveal a Post-modern mindset about eternal standards: they regard few things as eternal, and standards can shift with the times. Heretical, really.

The churches are saying that they will change almost anything in order to be “relevant.” No matter if those kids visiting the pews are bored by the Contempo Lite up on the stage. Even youngsters realize that today’s American church has few standards, and is willing to stand on its head – even to offend lifelong Christians like that old lady in San Diego – to put on a good show. “How sincere are they,” that young visitor might ask, “about their theology, too?”

Good question. Bad music. The Gospel message itself is sweet enough – sometimes hard enough, yes – to draw all people unto the Savior. Traditional musical, mighty hymns, persuasive songs, support the Good News preached to all men. “Music” that drowns it out… works against the Message people need to hear. The Church’s one foundation… is cracked?

+ + +

In the world… of the world. Post-Modern, Post-Christian. What’s the difference?

Click: The Church’s Worshiptainment

The Nature of Human Nature

1-11-16

Solomon, who seldom got things wrong, wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun,” in Ecclesiastes. The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The subject of such aphorisms, and much of the world’s wise sayings, is not, say, the weather, or taste in fashion. It is human nature.

We humans, most of us, have shinier toys, and live in somewhat more comfortable homes, than of generations ago; and eat more food, or in more variety, than did our ancestors.

Yet we still bash each other’s heads in at every opportunity: the last century was the bloodiest in world history. We still get sick and die, and in general terms plagues and poxes merely have been replaced by heart conditions and cancers. And stress, and psychological disorders, and addictions – the demons of the 21st century.

We complain about the same things that the ancients did. I am reminded that Mark Twain said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” It is probably true that the early Egyptians and Chinese and Athenians and Romans and Persians and Mayans complained about their bosses, spouses, landlords, scheduled events, children, shoddy footwear, and mothers-in-law.

And when human nature got more serious about things… well, there always has been cheating and jealousy and theft and lying and murder. Pride and arrogance. And, more constant than any of these things, brokenness, hurt, the need for forgiveness. The need for a Savior.

God provided that Savior, and He inspired love and forgiveness, sacrifice and charity; all in precious scant supply now as forever, thanks, once again, to the fact of human nature.

Recently it occurred to me that we have scarcely progressed from the essential afflictions of our distant ancestors in another important manner. I love these revelations, because I maintain that the human race requires periodic lessons in humility. In important things, and in the many trivial things that are the mortar of the important things. These wake-up calls can even be amusing, but are wake-up calls nonetheless.

Many of us consider the “cult of celebrity” a normative cancer. You know: movie stars, singers, and sport stars vs heroes. Skewed standards. Truly this is a contemporary phenomenon, because protean antecedents of our times’ celebrities – painters, composers, poets, artists – often dedicated their work to God and were fulfilled by serving Him. “Less of me; more of Him.” In researching my biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, I continually was struck by how utterly humble he was about his work, his accomplishments, his “celebrity,” in contradistinction to his God.

When we think we in America have been liberated from the trappings of royalty, repressive social and economic systems, and checks against free thought, is when we swindle ourselves most extravagantly, however. A very common denominator illustrates this the best.

We frequently hear complaints from, say, sports fans about ticket prices and athletes’ salaries. In the proverbial next breath the same fans often admire those salaries (“hey, if the owners didn’t have the money, they couldn’t pay it, right?”). Of course, owners – just like shop or factory bosses faced with higher labor costs – pass it along to the consumers. In sports, fans themselves pay those obscene players’ salaries by accepting higher prices for cars and candy bars and shaving creams that sponsor the games. Ticket prices for cold, hard seats. And stratospheric fees, parking costs, merchandise, and absurd prices for hot dogs, popcorn, and drinks.

The same with concert tickets, apparel festooned with logos, and advertised items hawked by celebrities paid millions to sell them to us gullible consumers. Little different than “tributes” paid to robber barons in the Middle Ages. Except that we willingly put these exalted peoples’ feet on our heads. We have thrown off royalty – oh, yeah? look at the faces on supermarket tabloids. We do them honor; we practically worship them. Plus ça change…

Compounding our foolishness, we are supremely inconsistent. Half of the people in America grouse about oil company profits – usually citing income, not profits – and ignoring research, development, costs of operation and such. In contrast, I have heard nobody offer anything other than admiring whistles over George Lucas’s $4-billion sale of the Star Wars franchise. Who do we think is funding that crazy purchase?

Neither any resentment, ever, of the rapid and mammoth wealth accumulated by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. “Oh, but they made things that people need.” Yes. Like… oil products and gasoline?

Why do people hate – yes, hate – the CEOs whom Michael Moore tells us to hate – “oh! those big houses!” – but have no problems with actors being paid $20-million and more per film? Most of the money paid at the gas pump goes to government taxes, not the gasoline or research or development or executives’ salaries. And a portion of every movie ticket is obeisance to the glamorous stars. In effect, a celebrity tax. Few complaints.

These are only a few reality-checks about our value systems. And, as I said, some reminders that human nature has not changed that much.

Returning to the spiritual aspect of our lives, more important than any of this. We think we have graduated from a society where highwaymen once lurked behind trees, whereas a multitude of internet pirates lurk behind our computer screens today. Wall-street cheats. Our jails more crowded than ever. Nothing new under the sun.

No, in God’s world we need to remember the old days, good or bad, by better or worse standards.

But there were times in human history when the vast majority of artists and writers and scientists acknowledged God as behind everything, the Maker and Redeemer. And they sought to honor Him in all they did. Common people toiled and sometimes suffered, but always consoled themselves in the ministrations of the Holy Spirit. Communities were built around churches, and the Word was central to everyone’s lives. Prayers were lifted daily – often continually throughout the day – and church attendance was weekly, or sometimes daily. Jesus was at the center of peoples’ lives, in all classes, in villages, towns, and cities.

But we know better in the 21st century. We are smarter – smart enough to dismiss God from our lives. We are happier – at least we pay more for things that promise to make us happy. We live more comfortable lives – if we would slow down for a moment to enjoy them once in a while. Our religion, as a society, is something we are so comfortable with that we don’t feel the need to “force” it on others… even our children.

Maybe the French got it wrong. The more things change, it might be that the worse they become. Is there anything new under the sun? Well… we still need a Savior.

+ + +

Some people think that the greatest creation of Franz Josef Haydn was not one of his 104 symphonies; or a string quartet, the genre he molded; or the mighty oratorio The Creation. Here is his Mass For Troubled Times, an astonishing, stirring, church piece, one of 14 masses he wrote. We live in troubled times, no less than his 1800 Vienna. Let it minister to you – traditional Latin words, in Kyrie; Gloria; Qui Tollis; Credo; Quoniam; Sanctus; Et Incantus Est; Et Resurrexit; Sanctus; Benedictus; Agnus Dei; Dona Nobis Pacem. Conducted by Grete Pedersen in a magnificent Oslo church.

Click: Mass for Troubled Times

The Two-Faced God

1-4-16

Happy new year. Out with the old, in with the new. Happy January. A time for new beginnings. For all those resolutions to be broken!

Many of our days and months have names that were inspired largely by ancient mythologies and pagan customs. Even Easter, for instance, was named for Isis (no, not that ISIS), the Egyptian mythological deity who married her brother Osiris, was also known as Ishtar, and perhaps inspired the word for East. Germanic tribes had a Spring festival (Oestern, a cognate of Easter) that looked eastward, to the sun and fertility.

So it is with what we call January. Its name is derived from the Roman god of beginnings and transitions – hence “presiding” over the end and beginning of the year. One of the few Roman gods not inherited and transmogrified from the Greeks, Janus became an important figure in the mythological pantheon. He lives in more than calendar pages; when I stay in Bologna, my favorite hotel is the Torre di Iano (Tower of Janus), an ancient villa originally dedicated to the god.

Does all this fit with Christianity? Deeper than we might think at first. January is an appropriate time to reminisce, “process,” and look forward. But so is every day of the year! OK, we all need “hooks,” reminders, disciplines. Does God sanction such activities? He does more: He encourages them.

Interestingly, Janus was always depicted as a two-faced god. On coins, in carvings and mosaics, he looked both forward and back. To play Bulfinch and parse the Roman myths, Janus specifically was the god of transitions. Here is where, as always, the God of the Bible is superior to any deities of the world’s mythologies or false phenomenologies. Our God should be, has been, will be in our relations and transitions. He is in our pasts and futures. In truth, He is our past, and our future.

But Christians, today, tend to think less and less of the past. In our contemporary and often post-Christian world, we take the past for granted… or decline to be convicted by its lessons. We might pray ourselves through troubled time; but – consistent with our consumerist culture? – look ahead. Like the right-half of Janus. Hope, confidence, optimism if we can summon it… we have become a people who look ahead.

But we would do well to think a little more than we do about the past. What brought us here? What are the details of our heritage? What have our forebears sacrificed for us? What lessons from the past present themselves to us?

These are important questions! For without understanding our past, our futures are gambles… aimless wanderings… games with no yard-markers, goalposts, or rules. The past is more than prologue: it is certain; the future is uncertain.

And the past is often painful. Parents will know – and all former children will remember – that lectures about a hot stove do little good, compared to the one time that the hot stove actually is touched! We must pay attention to what brought us here, to avoid Prof. Santayana’s aphorism that “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat.”

There is specific lesson – I would call it, rather, a powerful reminder – from something related to the Christmas season recently commemorated. As we re-pack our ornaments and take last looks at pretty greeting cards, it is important to remember something that we might have overlooked amidst the Christmas music and colorful wrapping paper and cookies. The past often holds a lot of pain. Much distress. Hurts, and sometimes excruciating angst. Life, in other words.

But this is good for us to know. Among the “whole armor of God” you will not find rose-colored glasses. Life is real, life is earnest. Even Christmas was associated with much pain and distress. As we approach the Feast of the Epiphany, it is decidedly an observance of transitions… but not neutral, as those of Janus. It is literally the celebration of the Incarnation: not merely Christ being born, but His introduction to humankind.

Traditions assign the Epiphany to the visit of the Magi; to Jesus’s religious dedication; to the 12th night; even to His baptism. The point is – remembering Jesus as Messiah: God-with-us.

Do you remember that Jesus’s birth was not all angels and harps? It was, for this world He came to save, like painful birth pangs, as a mother in labor would experience. Do you know that one of the sweetest-sounding of ancient lullabies actually is one of the saddest of laments that could be sung?

Matthew, Chapter 2, and historical tradition tell of King Herod’s obsession with preventing a rival to his authority; and when he was convinced that biblical prophecy was close to fulfillment, he ordered the death of boys less than two years old throughout the land. It has become known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”

It was symbolic, of course, of the world-system’s vicious resistance to the very concept of a Messiah. The presence of Jesus is a rebuke to those feel no awareness of their sin and dependency, who elevate Self over Revealed Truth. Christ’s enemies are not trivial nor easily dismissed, no matter how surely to be conquered. It was so, then; and it continues to be so, today. The Slaughter of the Innocents – a part of the Christmas story as relevant as the shepherds and angels – reminds us that ugly forces in life tried to keep our Savior from us. And still do.

The most haunting of Christmas carols, to which I referred, is known as The Coventry Carol. It was written in the 1500s, and its plaintive melody is one of the great flowerings of polyphony over plainsong in Western music. “Lullay, thou little tiny child,” is not a lullaby, and does not refer to the baby Jesus.

The carol is a lament by a mother of one of the babies slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do, For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight, All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for Thee! And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Utterly melancholic, as the harmonies are hauntingly beautiful. It is a fitting creation that must be part of our Christmastide observances, and Epiphany. Kings are still in their raging, but Jesus cannot be stopped by debates. He has never long been thwarted by bureaucratic rules. He was not even subject to death and the grave.

This January, look forward, yes; pray God’s blessing in your transitions; but remember the past. Hold to what it teaches. Be nurtured by the blessings it holds. And be thankful that our God is not, in the parlance of world, “two-faced,” but ever faithful.

+ + +

The Coventry Carol is so named because this song, in Old English first called “Thow Littel Tyne Childe,” had its origins in a “Mystery Play” of Norman France and performed at the Coventry cathedral in Britain. The play was called “The Mystery of the Shearmen and the Tailors,” based on the second chapter of Matthew. The anonymous lyrics are a mother’s lament for her doomed baby boy. All but this song from the mystery play are lost today. The earliest transcription extant is from 1534; the oldest example of its musical setting is from 1591. It still speaks to our hearts today. Performed here by Collegium Vocale Gent, conducted by Peter Dijkstra, in the
Begijnhofkerk at Sint-Truiden, Flanders.

+ + +

Click: Coventry Carol

The “Man Upstairs” Has Moved Out

10-12-15

As most of you know, Dr. Pangloss was a character in Candide by Voltaire. As with many characters in fiction and literature whose sayings (“Something will always turn up,” said Micawber in Dickens’ David Copperfield) and very names (Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals) have entered the language, Pangloss manifested the universal tendency to accept what life dumps on us: “This is the best of all possible worlds.”

It is very seldom that anyone who believes he or she really is living in the best of all possible worlds says so. Usually we are whistling in the graveyard; that is, putting up a confident front, trying to convince ourselves (and anyone else who will listen) that we are not as bad-off as things seems.

The saying, and the attitude behind it, is more than resignation to life’s vicissitudes. At its best it is a temporary surrender in one of life’s battles, a choice not to respond or fight or overcome. At its worst it is a false sense of security that replaces wisdom and joy; a counterfeit theology that rejects the rescue-and-recovery operation laid out for us by God.

The counterfeit theology is deadly… and common. Many Christians, deliberately or unconsciously, employ it. It is, really, saying “no thanks” to God when He offers comfort, solace, wisdom, understanding, strength, hope.

Truly, superstition. If we utter it, we think it will become so, and our troubles will be calmed.

The deadliest aspect of believing that “This is the best of all possible worlds” is on people who, ironically, are relieved from reaching low-points, feeling desperate, realizing that they must run to the Lord. Knowing they must run to the Lord. Having to crawl to the Lord, if necessary. It sounds hard, but we are talking about those hard moments we all face.

Seeking the Lord (who, always, always in these circumstances is closer than we think) is not a bad thing in the end. It is, in fact, the Best Thing. It is where He wants us. What a shame that it takes horrible situations – or that we let ourselves be so separated – that we have to experience that desperation.

But what a wonderful thing that we seek and arrive at the foot of the Cross, before the Throne of Grace.

“This is the best of all possible worlds”? The phrase is often said after a death, an accident, a disappointment that we cannot explain. Personal sorrow, economic distress, dashed dreams. “Oh, well, maybe it’s for the best…” is a denial-fed mantra. Its efficacy is self-swindling balm, because many people will then say, “Anyway, I have to believe that; it helps me get through.”

This puts the saying in company with wishing-stones, rabbit’s feet, lucky charms, necromancy. What a waste of the joy unspeakable, full of glory, that God offers. If this – in the larger, non-specific sense – were the best of all possible worlds, there would be no need for prayer, spiritual guidance, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit; indeed, no need for a Savior.

There is sin in the world. Sometimes, often, we sin; we fall short of the glory of God. Our problems are always some result of sin, corruption, junk in the world around us. And sometimes the result of our own actions. Whatever. God provides a refuge. Jesus is the cleft in the rock during life’s storms. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter.

“Come to Me, weak and heavy-laden,” Jesus invited. “Peace that passes understanding,” we are promised. “I am the bread of life,” when our very souls are starving. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Understand me: the Sovereign Lord declares that without Him, this is NOT the best of all possible worlds.

If you are a believer and you find yourself falling back on that empty mantra, shake that dust from your sandals, and learn again how to walk with the Lord through this imperfect world.

If you are casual about your faith, or a nominal believer in God, or have a “universal” trust in the goodness of a supreme being – and you find yourself trusting, when “necessary,” that this is the best of all possible worlds – realize how empty this is. It is as sad, horribly sad, for people to decline God’s gifts as it is to defy Him.

And be more spiritual than to refer to “the man upstairs.” That “man” has moved out. In fact he was never home.

The Creator of the Universe not only is “upstairs,” but lives right next to you. He knows your answers; He has your answers; He IS your answer.

And He is your guide to the best of all possible worlds.

+ + +

Johnny Cash sang a song, late in his life, that captures the desperation we sometimes feel.

Click: Help Me, Lord

What I Hate About Religion

9-7-15

“He has told you, O people, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8

When I was a college student, there were still such things as loyalty oaths. Students, teachers, applicants for many jobs in the government and the private sector, were required to answer and sign the following yes-or-no question: “Do you favor the overthrow of the United States Government by violence, force, or subversion?” As a young wise guy – now I am on old wise guy, not much wiser – one time I circled the word “subversion,” and added a note that I wished to avoid bloodshed.

Of course, it was not a multiple-choice question. I was no radical, and it was a reasonable question, especially in those times (maybe more so now, but that’s for another message…) and it was not right that my sense of humor eclipsed my common sense.

No less reasonable a question, and more serious, is the famous and favorite verse from Micah. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. Not a multiple-choice, and, overall, not a hard choice in life. Right? I am reminded, when I think on this verse, what always is right about God’s will, and what often is wrong about organized religion.

What I hate about religion is that it turns the simplicity of God’s message into a tangle of rules, conditions, qualifications, codes, and seeming contradictions. In fact, when theologians, clergymen, priests, and pastors get hold of churches and schools, of texts and flocks, oftentimes the contradictions are not apparent but real.

A quatrain (not from the Bible, but pertinent) I discovered and memorized in my youth says: “All the saints and sages who discussed/ of the two worlds so learnedly are thrust/ like foolish prophets forth; their words to scorn/ are scattered; their mouths are stopped with dust.”

Humans, who by our natures are lost and confused, and almost preternaturally, every one of us, yearning for truth and for peace and for Answers – we need simplicity. We fool ourselves that Complicated equals Profound. On such momentous matters as sin and death and afterlife, after all, doesn’t it make sense that the way to the Truth be complex? … and that we need learned leaders – saints and sages – to show us the way? No: They invariably need to tell us the way, not show us the way.

And there we get back to organized religion. New rules get added to scripture, which the Bible says is unforgivable sin (and so is taking away anything in scripture). Remember that for more than a thousand years, believers were not allowed to read the Bible, or translate it to their native languages. People were taught that intercessors in Heaven were needed to petition, or thank, God. Way-stations between earth and Heaven that were never in the Bible were invented. Today, television preachers promise that “seed money” you send them will guarantee God’s return blessings; and other rank heresies. Organized religion or organized rackets?

For those who are confident in having “found the way” to God, no different with those who are lost and confused and wanting to find God – in other words, all of us! – everyone should realize that God is accessible. Knowing Him is easy. He is always as close as a shadow. Talking to Him is simple, not complicated; hearing from Him is clear, not a matter of superstitious mystery.

Oh! His commandments? Jesus’s words? The Bible’s directions? Yes, they exist… and thank God. He doesn’t leave us helpless! But… He is not the Great Pretender, the Author of Confusion. His rules are few. They are for our guidance, and our happiness, our ultimate fellowship with Him. The Commandments are still wise and valid. The words of the Prophets, so many fulfilled, are lamps unto our feet. The teaching of Jesus? His words were surprisingly few, astonishingly full of wisdom, and directly for our salvation.

The essence of the Bible is found in so few words and passages that anyone might memorize them. The 10 Commandments (not the “10 Suggestions”) are rules we need. Micah’s verse about doing justice and walking humbly. Jesus’s summary of the Truth as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength; and… Love your neighbor as yourself.” To get to Heaven? – no classes, exams, ceremonies, or human blessings; only to Believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord; and confess that God raised Him from the dead.

I am grateful for some human agencies in or out of organized religion. Much has been useful: the ancient creeds simply encapsulated the tenets of faith; Martin Luther recalled the Bible verse that by faith we are saved, not (complicated) works; Mother Teresa brilliantly told us that God does not care about our “success,” only our obedience. Clear teaching… genuine humility… patient praying… anointed teaching of God’s word, not mankind’s “improvements”… service and sacrifice… quiet witnessing, even martyrdom… these are the elements of Christianity that humans can receive and provide. The essence of the Gospel life, not the “stuff.”

It has been said, and truly, that religion is mankind reaching up to God, but Christianity is God reaching down to us.

Let us learn to distinguish between the artificial rules and the True Faith. One is confusingly complicated, one is refreshingly simple. One might be wrapped up in memories and sentiment, but the other opens doors to joy unspeakable. One can keep you from peace; the other delivers it. You can discern. If not… that is why God instituted the communication-channel of prayer; and why He sent the Holy Spirit. Such prayers, such questions, such seeking, never go unanswered by your Father in Heaven.

We are aware that many things in our lives are right or wrong, true or false. We know. Experience, if nothing else, teaches us many things. Are the important things in your life mere check-boxes in a multiple-choice quiz?

Is Faith in God?

+ + +

The Gospel group Found Wandering sings its version of an old Stanley Brothers standard.

Click: That Home Far Away

The Abortion Issue Made Simple

8-17-15

Well… actually, that’s a lie. If it really were simple, in America and many places in the world, there would not be hot debates, policy fallouts, family feuds, “litmus tests,” stockpiles of weaponized arguments, court cases, broken churches, broken families. Or, often, broken women, erstwhile moms, bitter regrets. And, not recalled enough: tens of millions of dead babies.

But I hope any pro-abortion, “pro-choice,” readers will stick with me here. I acknowledge the “issue” is not simple… and my thoughts here, which have evolved through my life and I feel have arrived where they should be, might yet be a snapshot in time, evolving still. I think theology is clear, but public policy is difficult. Family management, counseling friends, is challenging.

And my theological point of view – where colleagues might part company – is that I believe the Bible is clear, although without the preponderance of specific references, on the proper spiritual and ethical attitude toward abortion. But I do not think that it is the Unpardonable Sin. It should not be encouraged in or out of the family of God… but mothers who made the euphemistic “choices” to “terminate” should be welcomed, not shunned, by Christians.

Friends know that I once was quite comfortable with the practice (not alone among other issues I have abandoned). Even before Roe vs Wade it was legal in Washington DC, where I went to college, and there was a culture that was very mechanistic – arguments about affordability, family “planning,” the soulless nature of blobs.

In truth, two attitudes fueled that culture, in those days: Washington, with its large black population, was a focus of abortion advocates like Planned Parenthood, whose founder, Margaret Sanger, frankly targeted her work, hoping to minimize or eventually eliminate the black population in society. Ugly, but true. And in the 1960s and ‘70s there was the attitude, if not explicit argument, that abortion simply was after-the-fact contraception.

My views changed through the years, the closer I drew to Jesus; but, also, the more I thought about the “issue,” the implications, the repercussions, the legacies. Abortion says something about the women, and men, involved. It says something about the society that permits – or encourages – it. It says something about dead babies. Not aborted fetuses: shut up. Dead babies.

The “issue,” once thought settled after Roe vs Wade, is more contentious than ever in America. Less settled. Science has made astonishing advances, both in maintaining viability of the pre-born, and in determining what, frankly, is a human – what is life, who is living – after conception. Traditionalists often are labeled “anti-science” about issues like evolution and global warming, but science is on the side, today, of the anti-abortionists. Or pro-life advocates.

The “issue” has invaded politics. Candidates might disagree on war and peace, the economy, government snooping, the threat of Iran, anything and everything… but (to employ the extreme labels) killing babies or a woman’s “right to choose” are defining issues of the age.

The “issue” is such today that almost every day its implications rise before us. At least for me. The news stories, of course, that disclose videos of Planned Parenthood leaders discussing the sale and efficient harvesting of babies and their organs. (Opponents fulminate against the hidden cameras, or the relatively small profits, shamelessly ignoring the horror of it all.) This week is the anniversary of my granddaughter Sarah’s birth. She lived nine days, a fragile preemie, and I look at the photo of my daughter Heather holding the tiny baby; I still cry to see the hope in Heather’s smile – and then I look at tiny Sarah and cannot help, today, picturing “scientists” and abortionists who would have swept in and carved her up at so many cents per pound. I watch an afternoon of Smithsonian documentaries about primitive societies and realize, peripherally, how many practiced infant sacrifice. Primitive. societies.

I believe abortion is current-day infant sacrifice. We appease the gods of convenience, guilty conscience, and callous morals.

History has a term for these primitive, and contemporary, practices writ large: infanticide. China long has practiced selective – and mandatory – abortions and infanticide in order to manage its economy. And the world shrugs.

Again, not an issue easily discussed or dispatched. Does it come down, after all, to women grasping for a legal sanction to resist biological, as well as moral, imperatives? Five Supreme Court justices aside, there still are differences between the sexes, and always will be. We have a generation of women – I know not all, despite the implications and claims of surveys, or, rather, poll-takers – who refuse to be women, at least in the most defining, distinctive, and glorious, way possible: motherhood.

Theodore Roosevelt once said (a propos expanding women’s right to vote), “Equality of rights does not mean equality of functions.” He did not mean cooking and cleaning; he meant to resist the revolutionary and degenerate aims of his contemporary, Margaret Sanger.

Of course there are the assertions, whether sincere or convenient, of those who argue that many children born to disadvantaged families are abused; that one “mistake” of passion should not be “punished by a baby,” as President Obama rationalized; that our planet cannot support more people. With these arguments the “issue” finds itself shifted alongside those of barbarians, Nazis, and ethnic cleaners.

To me, certain responses are increasingly hard to resist:

If death is determined by when a heart stops beating, why is life not measured when a hearts begins beating?

If fetuses are not human, why are their little body parts considered human?

We are told that people have rights to health care, to food, to schools, to hospital care; why not a right to life?

If a single cell were discovered on a distant planet, the world would celebrate life existing elsewhere in the universe. If it were found in a woman’s womb, why is it not considered life?

Women abort – let us say, kill their children – when babies are inconvenient. Under Hitler, Jews were deemed inconvenient; their mistreatment was legal; their slaughter not punished. Are pre-born babies guiltier, more deserving of execution, than Jews?

If these unborn babies can be dismissed as tissue masses and “blobs,” why do we not discuss “blob control,” so nice and antiseptic, instead of “birth control”?

This is not a man/woman perspective. I know as well as any man can, how life-altering an “unwanted” pregnancy can be. Well, there are millions of women who cry for babies, their own and others, who are more militant than I. There are uncountable women who were spared being aborted, sometimes at the last minutes, who thrive today – happy, healthy, and grateful for life. There are women who decided to give their babies up for adoption – maybe the second most wrenching decisions they could make – and those children live amongst us.

Our society is not sensitive to fathers of “unwanted” babies who are bound to support their child until majority; but have no say if their girlfriends kill the baby. I have met women who were consumed with grief for being misled, for killing their babies, and have lived with their “choices,” to use the hallowed word. One I know, have interviewed, is Norma McCorvey – the “Jane Roe” of Roe vs. Wade – remorseful and a pro-life advocate today.

But still, not an easy issue. This is my determination, and a plea to my allies – celebrate life, all life; welcome sinners (as we all are) who repent; wrap them, as we wrap ourselves, in Jesus’s love; and exercise forgiveness. As God offers forgiveness to us.

To those who still wrestle with the morals and ethics of the abortion issue, I close. Like it or not, there is a Heaven and a Hell. And as we understand God’s mystery, in Heaven we will all have “perfected” bodies. More than that we really don’t know. But consistent with what the Bible teaches, one’s aborted babies will be there, too.

Can you imagine looking into the eyes of these? “Why, Mommy? Why, Daddy?”

You might think you would answer, “I was afraid I would fail you. I was afraid you would stumble through life…”

And what if the answer is, “But what if you had not failed but succeeded? And what if I had not stumbled, but blossomed and flown and danced… and lived?”

+ + +

The poignant lullaby by Stephen Foster, sung by Alison Kraus:
Click: Slumber, My Darling

Hard Times

8-3-15

Hard Times. A relative term. Not only within our own situations, but compared to others… America, compared to other nations… our days, compared to the past. Truly, materially at least, we are blessed.

I have been sad, but not in sorrow. I have been in debt, but never destitute. I have had regrets, but never grief. How many of us can share such relatively comfortable testimony? In my case, to whatever extent I rightly judge my “insulation,” it is largely due to my standing as a Christian – receiving joy that passes understanding. But we also have to credit modern life, in America, with its technology, medicine, and general prosperity. Right?

Hard Times happen in America, but somehow many of the crises have the lengths of TV mini-series, and when not, the public grows impatient for the next one. Our culture has a sound-bite mentality. We used to face our challenges; but now we are distracted with the modern equivalents of the Romans’ “bread and circuses” — pop entertainment, push-button gratification. The Bible paints a picture of awful distress in earth in the End Times, and we are not prepared for that.

In many ways this indicates that we are not advancing as a culture. I’m not sure we are “going backwards,” either, because that might actually be beneficial. Giuseppi Verdi (yes, the composer otherwise known as Joe Green) once said, Torniamo all’antico: Sara un progresso — “We turn to the past in order to move forward.”

I got thinking of Hard Times in America when I pulled an elegant old volume off my bookshelf. Folk Songs was published in 1860, before the Civil War. This book is leather-bound, all edges gilt, pages as supple as when it was printed, a joy to hold. The “folk songs” of its title refers not to early-day coffee houses, but to poems and songs of the people, in contradistinction to epic verse or heroic sagas; the way the German word Volk refers to the shared-group spirit of the masses.

Many of the titles are charming: “The Age of Wisdom,” “My Child,” “Baby’s Shoes,” “The Flower of Beauty,” “The First Snow-Fall”… However, such sweet titles mask preoccupations with children dying in snow drifts, lovers deserting, husbands lost at sea, fatal illness, mourning for decades, unfaithful friends. No need to guess the themes other titles from the index:”Tommy’s Dead,” “The Murdered Traveler,” and “Ode To a Dead Body.”

It reminded me that people 150 years ago were not gloomy pessimists: they were not. But Hard Times were a part of life, and therefore part of poetry and song. On the frontier, life could be snuffed out in a moment. In the imminent Civil War, roughly every third household was affected by death, maiming, split families, or hideous disruption; yet anti-war movements never gained traction; life went on. A young Abraham Lincoln had almost lost his mind over an unhappy love affair; his wife likely did lose her mind when her favorite son died in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt’s young wife (in childbirth) and mother (of salmonella) died on the same day in the same house. Hard Times, I’d say.

Also before the Civil War, a composer named Stephen Foster wrote a song called Hard Times. He is barely recalled today, sometimes as a caricature, but he might be America’s greatest composer. He wrote My Old Kentucky Home; I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair; Old Black Joe; Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginia; Way Down Upon the Swanee River / Old Folks At Home; Oh, Susanna; Camptown Races; Beautiful Dreamer… and Hard Times, Come Again No More. This last song has been resurrected lately to a certain repute, or at least utility. In some circles it has become an anthem for charities and lamentation of poverty. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, even the Squirrel Nut Zippers, have sung it. It has taken on the air of a secular anthem. But in fact, although Stephen Foster did not embed a Gospel message in the lyrics, he had written many hymns in his life. It is clear that the “cabin,” and its door, in the song are metaphors, endowing a spiritual subtext to the song.

If we can turn back our minds to the world of 150 years ago — it is clear that the Hard Times he wrote of were the world’s trials, to be relieved in Heaven. We have a haunting melody, but a clear truth: Hard Times will be endured and become things of the past. We must keep them in perspective. Trust in Him. God provides a joyful relief from life’s disappointments when they come. By and by, they will “come no more.”

+ + +

Here is a memorable video to evoke the reality of life’s Hard Times, the promise heaven holds, and the beauty of Stephen Foster’s music to you. The seven singers are from the amazing project of a few years ago, “The Transatlantic Sessions” — singers and musicians from America (US and Canada), Ireland, and Scotland singing old and new “folkish” songs in a living-room setting.

(By the way, they are, left to right, Rod Paterson, Scotland; Karen Matheson, Scotland — hear her incredible soprano harmony on the left channel; Mary Black, Ireland; Emmylou Harris, US; Rufus Wainwright, his mother Kate McGarrigle, and her sister Anna McGarrigle on the button accordian, all Canadians. The other musicians are fiddler Jay Ungar — he wrote the haunting “Ashokan’s Farewell” tune of the PBS “Civil War” series — and his wife Molly Mason on the bass; and the project’s shepherds Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, and American dobro player Jerry Douglas.)

The lyrics are printed out under the link:

Click: Hard Times Come Again No More

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times, come again no more.

Chorus:
‘Tis the song, the sigh, of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times, come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times, come again no more.

There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times, come again no more.

Happy Tears

6-1-15

Many of us have come to assume that “commencement,” as in every June’s spate of Commencement exercises, means the end: ceremonies that mark the end of high-school or college or grad school stints; the end of studying; for some people, the end of emergency calls from your kids needing money in their accounts at college. (Um, it doesn’t end with diplomas.)

But of course “commencement” means beginning. It is not a mere word-exercise to keep the meaning straight. It is well that we always have the attitude that almost everything we do is preparation for the next stage. This is true about one’s first job, and it is true about one’s last job, so to speak, in Glory, for which we always should prepare.

A personal note as I commence this little essay. I will write about endings and commencements and seasons of life. I usually do in June, for graduations are useful reminders of the larger cycles wherein we spin. I have just returned from a month overseas with my daughter and son-in-law Emily and Norman; my grandchildren Elsie and Lewis; my hosts Kenny Morrison and Ann Campbell and so many other new friends. It was not easy to arrange the trip there… but less easy to leave. Circles and cycles.

Parenthetically, this week is the exact fifth anniversary of this blog. And coincidentally, we just passed precisely 100,000 subscribers, hits, visitors, and, perhaps, even eavesdroppers. And respondents, from all over the world. It is truly humbling. I thank God and Google; the web and YouTube; my amazing Web Master (and I do mean Master) Norm Carlevato; and sites that pick us and share to places unknown – RealClearReligion, AssistNews, CBN.com, etc.

Ironically the germ of these messages was, five years ago, sharing a music video with a precious friend, singer/songwriter Becky Spencer… and I shared the link below, on the theme of kids’ graduations (and my enthusiasm for the singer Suzy Bogguss).

So here we are, back again. Circles and cycles. And thinking about the seasons of life. For me, enjoying my grandchildren after two years. For many, children graduating, and preparing for college or some other schooling or the military. You don’t have to be a parent or a grandparent to savor the unfathomable mixed but sweet emotions at the commencements of new chapters in life. You can be a child or grandchild. The pathos might take longer to be evident, but you eventually will feel it.

When Emily’s pastor Keith McCrory drove me to the Dublin Airport last week I wept for several minutes after waving to the family. Keith finally sympathized, “It must be hard to say good-bye.” I don’t think he believed me when I protested that I had merely jammed my fingers in the car door.

But these feelings of pathos, these tears we cry, are not sad, or not 100 per cent sad. There is an elemental part of us that appreciates when a significant transition of life takes place. It is natural, it is proper, it is what comprises life, as much as breathing and sleeping and eating. But because these moments come at fewer times, and with concentrated emotions, they seem more poignant. They ARE more poignant… but not unwelcome.

When kids go off to college, or the military, or professions, they are just doing what you reared them to do. When they marry, they fulfill your dreams, not only theirs. When they leave home, sometimes to live in other states or countries… you will miss them, but you feel the pride a mother bird must feel when a young one spreads its wings and flies. Elemental.

The tears we shed when we welcome our babies to the world have the same real and virtual ingredients as the tears we shed when the world, in turn, welcomes them years later, and we say Farewell. What different emotions! But parents holding on at first, after all, is the same sort of act as parents letting go later on.

“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1,2, New Living Translation)

+ + +

Music vid: Singer Suzy Bogguss was barely a newlywed when her husband Doug Crider wrote this song, an early hit record of hers, about circles and cycles of life, the mysterious poignant joys of parenthood. Two decades later she drove her own daughter to college before singing it on the Grand Ole Opry. Not an easy task. To every parent this June. Happy Commencement!

Click: Letting Go

Memorial Day’s Special Creatures

5-25-15
(Memorial Day)

They are special creatures. And rare. They do jobs not everyone understands, but they do understand. They are willing, and often do, “pay with their bodies for their souls’ desire,” as Theodore Roosevelt, whose son Quentin was killed in an aerial dogfight over German lines, said of fallen servicemen.

The finest tribute we can pay
Unto our hero dead today,
Is not a rose wreath, white and red,
In memory of the blood they shed;
It is to stand beside each mound,
Each couch of consecrated ground,
And pledge ourselves as warriors true
Unto the work they died to do.

— Edgar Guest

Throughout history there have been many military forces stocked of conscripts, sometimes unwilling, even ignorant of their “cause.” But often – and especially in this era of the volunteer military – service people take their oaths, don their uniforms, and support their missions. Victory is their goal, but they all know that death is an option. Other options include the certainty of family separation and changed civilian lives if and when they return; and, increasingly these days, cruel injuries and challenging disabilities.

But they volunteer, these special creatures. Sacrifice and Service are what their loves become. Gen. George S Patton is supposed to have said: “War is not dying for your country. It’s making the other bastard die for his country.” True as far as it goes, even a brilliant distinction; and a great motivational aphorism on a battle’s eve. But discordant on Memorial Day.

Heroes of old! I humbly lay
     The laurel on your graves again;
Whatever men have done, men may,—
     The deeds you wrought are not in vain!

— Austin Dobson

We don’t have to agree with the “cause” of a war or the decision to put a nation’s young men and women into battle in order to admire the fallen. I dissent from many adventures of recent years – or at least their strategies and tactics – but I am in awe of those who serve, sacrifice, sustain wounds, and die. They do not hate, for the most part, as soldiers and sailors and marines and airmen have been taught throughout history. Rather they love.

The motivations of those dead military souls whose we honor this weekend was more love of country than hatred of enemy. Not killing a foreign leader but protecting their families. Not focusing on distant spoils but venerating their spouses, kids, friends, and lives back home. Not against “them” but for “us.” Paying with their souls for their hearts’ desires.

To slightly parse another popular phrase, as I did with Patton’s above, the military man or woman did not bring us our freedom. Only God can do that, and has done that; and such a proper perspective has nurtured America for centuries, in war and peace alike. I am tempted to say that the service members might preserve our freedoms… except for this New Day and Age where civilian politicians and judges erode liberty faster than our military can “defend” it.

All we have of freedom, all we use or know–
This our fathers bought for us long and long ago.

— Rudyard Kipling

It saddens me that in recent American wars – let me say, larger, in recent generations – disputes rage not only over grand causes. But behind the battle lines, at home, wars claiming thousands have been undeclared, by politicians afraid of committing themselves as members of the military do, to the ultimate point. The public is often disunited, and too frequently dismissive of military service per se. Orders are countermanded; war aims abandoned; world and national politics subsume military goals.

Military families are neglected and often live in poverty, on welfare benefits. Veterans organizations and private charities care in innovative and effective ways – but their every success is a blot of shame on a government that should thus care by itself for its valiant. Scandals in military hospitals and veteran’s administrations are many, and continue.

… It is this situation – an America far different than the nation’s previous soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines fought for – this situation for which our uniformed heroes are willing to die. And an America where their chaplains are being denied the freedom to share Christ. Where the values many of them cherished or desired to defend, have changed or been perverted by courts and bureaucrats.

Yet they die, and are willing to die.

Because you passed, and now are not,—
     Because, in some remoter day,
Your sacred dust from doubtful spot
     Was blown of ancient airs away,—
     Because you perished,—must men say
Your deeds were naught, and so profane
     Your lives with that cold burden ? Nay,
The deeds you wrought are not in vain!

— Austin Dobson

Special creatures, these fallen heroes. Let us honor them in our minds and hearts, in ceremonies public and private. A flower, a flag, a prayer. Prayers of thanksgiving for such as these – in all humankind, special men and women admirable for their amazing devotion and sacrifices – and prayers that their kind may not perish from amongst us.

+ + +

Music vid: I had the pleasure once to meet the legendary singer/songwriter Bill Carlisle, in the course of writing one of my books on country music. He was part of a “brother act” with Cliff, and famous for leaping high on stage, guitar in hand, during one of his trademark novelty songs. I was not aware at the time that he was the writer of one of the great gospel songs, “Gone Home.” He was reluctant to perform it often because he was identified as a comic singer – so Flatt and Scruggs, GrandPa Jones, Ricky Skaggs, and others made it part of their repertoires. Another singer who revered the song, and sang it often, was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who enjoyed bluegrass and gospel music. Here is his acoustic version – appropriate here because its lyrics have become identified with fallen soldiers, brave family members, and missing friends, on Memorial Day: those who have Gone Home.

Click: Gone Home

Imitating God

5-11-15

And Moses said to the children of Israel, “See, the Lord… has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of artistic workmanship. And He has put in his heart the ability to teach… He has filled them with skill to do all manner of work of the engraver and the designer and the tapestry maker, in blue, purple, and scarlet thread and fine linen, and of the weaver – those who do every work and those who design artistic works” (Exodus 35:31-35).

There are some Christians who write to correct me when I refer to creativity, creative accomplishments, creators of prose and poetry and painting, of drawings, sculpture, and dance. Of course we know that God created all things, that nothing was created that was not created by Him. Or, technically, can be created. They say, “Only God can create.” Of course this is true for physical elements, for resources – a reminder that is either sobering or revelatory to extremists who think we might run out of water or oxygen or soil or minerals. We might indeed squander resources, spoil or misuse the earth’s treasures, and pollute the environment. But under this inverted bowl we call the sky we cannot add to God’s resources or make any disappear: the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof… all of it.

Having parsed those terms, I believe it is not unscriptural to say that God’s children can create. Not in terms of alchemy, but to create stories from the mysterious depths of our imaginations. To create ethereal music where silence once reigned. To create images – paintings, drawings, sculpted figures, movies, graphic novels – by that magical process that exists between blank pages or canvasses and finished works of art, attended by simple speculation or profound genius as midwives.

We hear the clichés about what separates us from animals – laughter, compassion, intelligence – but I think the principal distinction, beyond having souls, is that we humans are creative beings. Not only created, but creative.

And I believe God endowed us with this spark of creativity. It is neither a theological “stretch” nor blasphemy to see ourselves this way. If we are to be “imitators of Christ,” in matters of relationships, forgiveness, discipleship, then surely we may be imitators of God, the Creator. In fact it is true, not suggestive but affirming, that most generations of humankind’s history, including in other faith traditions than our own, the majority of artistic expression has been exegetical of religious beliefs, expressing praise in unique ways, simply glorifying God. (That much artwork of the 20th and 21st centuries has been secular or anti-God, inimical to tradition and rejecting inherited values, is evidence, I think, of the cultural nihilism that infests our age. Do artists reflect their culture? Then yes, we have a proven case of societies tragically adrift. The contemporary arts tell us that we do not merely hate traditional standards; we of this age hate the very concept of there being standards.)

I have noted recently in this space that because of family matters I am in Ireland for month, and missing the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, an annual event where I endeavor to counsel aspiring writers and where (dirty-little-secret alert) I am replenished by fellowship with other creative types. I hasten to add that in God’s providence I am finding time, and making new friends, with writers and artists in Dublin, Ireland. And this is today’s context of the message I compose about once a year on creativity.

Dublin has a great literary tradition. I have already been to a few of the sites where Leopold Bloom “visited,” still marked as real locations and attractive to literary tourists. I will visit the Dublin Writers Museum, Trinity College Library, and the Chester Beatty Collection to see rare manuscripts and literary relics. The International Writers Festival will be held next week. Just to look upon the Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript whose display turns one page each day – to realize that I look upon an astounding work of art, and a manuscript representative of monastic traditions that kept Christianity alive during the bleakest years of the barbarians’ dominance of Europe – floods the soul.

I have met, by chance or because of my daughter Emily’s affinity for the arts, writers and artists who are particularly gifted. Stacey Covell deconstructs and reconstructs poems, collaborating with visual artists who contribute to the new morphological creations, published in a revolutionary format of loose pages in an envelope, to be read, rearranged, spread out, and itself reconstructed. Another new friend is Martin McCormack, an artist whose invented medium is turf – mixing iconic Irish peat with glue and acrylics, applying the substance to boards and then scraping away negative portions of Irish cultural figures’ faces to produce portraits that are arresting.

There is in Dublin a fledgling group called the Creative Collective. Founded by James and Laura Pettit (he a musician, she a painter), it is a gathering-place where “we explore what creativity is and encourage every person to understand why imagination, beauty and truth matter in life. Everyone has imagination and ability to create, and everyone is welcome. We are involved in visual arts, music, theatre and performing arts, design, new media, literary arts and film.” Those who attend the meetups are from many different countries, all ages. The motivators and hosts of the Creative Collective are Christians, but wide-ranging, free discussion of the arts and creativity is the only “liturgy.”

Recently James formed a spin-off community, Art & Faith Together, to encourage those who wanted to explore the nexus of the disciplines. His own manifesto described the community: “Passion for creativity. My encouragement for everyone to understand how they are particularly made to create. Helping people understand what that means in their lives.” He said, “I love how any discussion about any art can have applications to another.”

I attended a meeting of Art & Faith Together in Dublin’s unique coffee shop Third Space last week. I was very impressed with James’ views of the arts and creativity (himself, among things, a classically trained trombonist who espied jazz and blues) but especially his views as a Christian artist. The American church community, with pockets of exceptions, I think tends not to encourage artistic expression and creativity. I hope I am mistaken. Too often, people of faith equate the arts with iconoclasm (in itself, not necessarily a bad thing), scatology and worse.

To the extent that Christian nay-sayers have any point, our response should not be to withdraw from creative communities and artistic expression, but to embrace them… reclaim them… redeem them.

James Pettit was firm in this view the night I met him at Art & Faith in Dublin. It was a commitment to something I had not fully considered: that Christians in the arts were not merely expressing their creativity; not only praising God in unique ways; but can fulfill themselves and in so doing, attract the world to the Word by the beauty, singularity, complexities, simplicity, fragrance, and elemental attractiveness of God-inspired, God-honoring art. I would add, as above, perhaps even be reverently God-imitative.

A few nights after that session in the Third Space Café in Dublin’s Smithfield district, James Pettit died of a massive heart attack. I, who knew him but a few hours, was as shocked and saddened as those who knew the transplanted American for years. This essay is a tribute to him, and the values this gentle giant of a man gently but firmly embraced.

+ + +

Click: Sweet Is the Melody

Happy Birthday to Infinity

5-4-15

Hubble deep space (see more Hubble images)

Let us toss a pinch of cosmic pixie dust this week to the Hubble Telescope, the latest toy – a term I use with deep, proper, appropriate reverence – that allows us to view the universe more clearly. To appreciate creation better. To renew our sense of awe. To understand God more fully?

Not really, no. The stunning images of the universe we have received for 25 years allow us to see God’s handiwork in ways that scientists throughout history could never dream, and dreamers could never explain. At best – which is very good – the images we are graced to receive from Hubble’s penetrating gaze remind us of a God who is all-powerful, bigger than our biggest thoughts, and audacious to a degree we cannot comprehend. But… we don’t automatically understand Him better. I “understand” Him less, in fact, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In sixth grade, the father of my friend Eric Wells took a group of neighborhood kids to New York’s City’s Hayden Planetarium for Eric’s birthday. We beheld, there, that era’s best representation of the infinite heavens, the projection of an enhanced night sky on the planetarium’s interior dome. Under thousands and thousands of virtual stars and planets, I leaned over to Mr Wells and said, “It makes one feel rather insignificant, doesn’t it?” I later heard that the remark impressed him, but I was either swiping a Peanuts gag, or simulating one. (I was destined for a life in comics. More than a life in astrophysics. Believe me.)

These images do, however, make us feel insignificant. Even if we are on the “inside track,” knowing God, satisfied with the mystery of creation and God’s ways – that is, not having to know every detail of matters that are wholly God’s domain – and grateful to be part of His plan. Even then, as King’s kids and co-heirs with Christ, we are still awestruck by the majesty and mystery of Creation.

Are we Luddites, living in happy ignorance and distrustful of knowledge? Of course not. It is an exciting time in history, to look heavenward, as did Adam and Eve, or the Neanderthals Ug and Glug did, or as the impressionable wise men in Egypt and Greece and Phoenicia, or as did uncountable poets and philosophers and lovers, and ask “What is there? What more is there? Do we see what we think we see?” For the first time in history, humans nudge a little closer to seeing, almost feeling, the reality of unknown worlds.

Like the first Enlightenment thinkers, we appreciate science for opening paths to God. (This is contrary to what our schools teach about the Age of Reason, ostensibly when science “liberated” itself from superstitious religion.) Science should not make us greater skeptics: it should bring us closer to an appreciation of God’s greatness; better to behold His handiwork; to advance civilization by rational incorporation of spiritual inspirations. Newton saw things that way. As did Bach. Their main goals were to explain and glorify God by the scientific tools they employed.

Other questions, like How did the universe start, and When did it begin, almost seem like setting off stink bombs at a debutante’s ball. The questions are real… but ultimately more silly than profound. The “Big Bang,” only recently a rock-solid explanation of creation, is now undergoing a sort of scientific recall. Second thoughts. New facts. Matter and anti-matter, once the property of science-fiction writers, has now been appropriated by PhDs and professors. Good for them. Carbon-dating, for instance on the Shroud of Turin, is now being reassessed too.

I have always thought that the more detailed the explanations were of the Big Bang, the more they simply sounded like mumbo-jumbo restatements of the Book of Genesis anyway. All the saints and sages who have discussed of the universe’s origins inevitably are stymied. The universe started… when? And what was it the moment beforehand? Creation started as an atomic particle exploding? What surrounded it before the explosion; who caused the explosion? The universe is expanding? Into what? How far? What is beyond that? Who started all this? If “nobody,” then…

When your head stops hurting, you will affirm that unanswerable questions do not prove the existence of God by themselves, but abstract skepticism – ultimately, rebellion – surely does not disprove God’s existence. I’ll take Awe. I don’t often quote Matthew Harrison Brady, who inherited the wind, but I am persuaded to be more concerned with the Rock of Ages than the Ages of Rocks.

“Have you not known? have you not heard? has it not been told you from the beginning? have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He that sits upon the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are as grasshoppers; Who stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in: Who brings the princes to nothing; He makes the judges of the earth as nothing. Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown: yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth: and He shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble. To whom then will you liken me, or shall I be equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and behold Who has created these things, that brings out their host by number: He calls them all by names by the greatness of His might, for He is strong in power; not one is missing” (Isaiah 40: 21-26).

It pleased the Creator God to fill this mysterious void with billions of galaxies, colorful, ever-changing, intriguing. It pleased Him to create a species of beings in His image, and fill our world with wondrous animals and plants and mountains and seas. It pleased Him to embrace us with love, and provide a means of salvation so that, wherever and however, we will spend eternity with Him. And it pleases us that He ordained science, which confirms His greatness and omnipotence, more and more frequently. Thank you, Hubble. Happy birthday!

+ + +

Click: Adagio by Tomaso Albinoni

We Should Make Waves, Not Ride Them

4-20-15

I recently was at a dinner party and discussed reading habits with a lady. “When you write fiction, I’m sure you know how the story will end,” she asked “but when you read a novel, do you ever peek ahead to the ending?” I have heard that some people do this, but it sort of defeats the purpose, don’t you think?

There is only one book where I think it is worthwhile, even advisable, to peek ahead to the ending. To the very last chapter. And that is the best of books, the Great Book: the Holy Bible.

It is a good idea to do more than peek. We should be as familiar with End Times as we are the story of Creation; with the requirements for Salvation as the Commandments of the Decalogue; with the “signs of the times” as the signs and wonders of Christ’s ministry. God desires that we know what is coming – for the faithful, the faithless, and the apostates.

The Bible is very clear about what is coming at the End of Time, the end of this world as we know it. And when the Bible is not clear – which is frequently, as many details are wrapped in allusions, poetry and, yes, mystery – I believe this too is intentional. God has not been sloppy nor the Holy Spirit an inadequate inspiration. God wants us to be forever on watch, always anticipating His return, constantly following Scripture for its signposts.

To these ends we must study the Last Days, during which many believe, plausibly, we live today.

We know that “the saints will be deceived,” that many Christians, and churches, and entire denominations, will follow false doctrines.

We know that “men shall be lovers of their own selves” – more than selfish, but given over to their own desires, substituting their wills for God’s.

We know that the Bible speaks of a time when there will be “wars and rumors of wars,” more than usual; and “people cry ‘peace, peace,’ but there is no peace.”

We know that “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” This is only happening with the advent of modern communications.

We know that, speculations about the anti-Christ aside, the world will be beset by false Messiahs.

Many are the prophecies of violent weather, “distress” around the world, plagues, famines, oppression, persecution of the church. And many people see these as imminent… or already here. We do not have to wander into the tall grass of preterist debates and arguments for and against pre-millennialism, millennialism, and post-millennialism, as prerequisites to gain familiarity with scripture’s pictures of the End of the Age. Whether Israel is the fulfillment of the biblical restoration of Jerusalem or a secular country unrelated to the spiritual dispensation of God’s chosen, the spiritually circumcised, et cetera, et cetera…

… the earth as we know it will end. We are on paths toward destruction. Judgment draweth nigh. Numerous prophecies are being fulfilled (from Daniel, Isaiah, and other Old Testament books, as well as from Jesus’s words, Paul’s letters, and the Book of Revelation) that could not have been imagined or understood just a few short years ago. Heresies abound. Men call evil good and good evil, right in our midst, even from our pulpits. All as the Bible predicted.

I am not being pessimistic; I am being realistic.

I am not voicing alarms; I am sharing the Truth.

I am not showing lack of faith in God’s working; I am reading the Bible about His ways.

I am not decrying God’s coming judgments; I know absolutely that He is a Just God.

So. Now what, believers? I urge that we not get caught up in whether the Great Tribulation happens in the middle of the 70 weeks and what passages are literal and what references are true but allusions. We must deal with facts, not disputes; God’s will, not our theology.

We must be ready. We must look up. We must be pure and faithful. We must correct the misguided, witness to the lost, convert the rebellious.

More, we must be willing to suffer for the gospel. We must be willing to be criticized by neighbors. We must be willing to be shunned by family members.

We must be bold. We must speak up, speak out, and speak loudly against the horrible things in our midst – laws, rules, education, the courts, the schools, entertainment media, popular culture.

We must take stands, even commit civil disobedience, on matters like suppression of the gospel, freedom of religion, infanticide and euthanasia, moral abominations.

If you need a list, look in the Bible’s descriptions of the days preceding End Time destruction. Our scripts – our marching orders – are there. Woe to those of us who wrongly apply “turning the other cheek” when His church is being attacked. Be not deceived: God is not mocked.

It is time for Christians to stop trying to “get along.” We should be making waves, not riding them. This is not an option. Peek ahead, and read the end of the story.

“What sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn? According to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish…” (II Peter 3:11-14).

+ + +

Click: I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted

The Second Most Important Day of Your Life

3-23-15

Here is an anomaly – something like Winston Churchill once called, in another context, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: It is possible in America today, a “Christian” nation founded by Christians, many of them pilgrims and many who dedicated their lives, their lands, and their legacies to Jesus Christ; a country where churches dot the landscape and where sermons and Christian music are common on airwaves… it is the case that many people in America today grow up never hearing the gospel presented.

Multitudes reach adulthood, and live their lives, without the basics of the Christian faith being explained to them. America, “one nation under God,” land of the Pilgrims’ pride, of religious holidays, of the Ten Commandments?

This is certainly the case in Western Europe, despite some countries still having “state churches,” and where tax money is levied to support denominations. Many people are aware of churches, and traditional holidays, and have heard familiar hymn tunes without being at all aware of the tenets of faith.

When church attendance is a matter of indifference – or avoiding church is a matter of pride – and when rejecting every reference to Jesus, or every mention of the gospel is as easy as changing the radio dial or clicking the TV remote, millions in these “Christian” United States live in the spiritual condition of many savages from remote corners of the earth, and the vicious heathens of history. Strange. Seemingly unlikely. But true.

Believers throughout the millennia have endured torture to learn and savor the gospel of Jesus Christ – the Good News. Many believers have sacrificed their all in order to know and serve the Savior. Many believers have risked, and lost, their lives in order to share Christ.

These facts are yet true today. In lands where it is most difficult and dangerous, there are martyrs we hear about. We read of secret house churches in China, meeting in whispers and in danger, yet boldly reading the Bible one page at a time each meeting. We know of imprisoned believers in North Korea and Cuba and Iran. We read where, in the face of persecution and death, hundreds and thousands from other faith traditions convert to Christianity, in places like Egypt and Syria.

Yet in the Christian West, so-called, millions are indifferent to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Worse, our culture grows hostile to the faith.

In an ironic way, many people who are skeptics and rejectionists – agnostics and atheists – cannot be faulted as nonbelievers if the culture has conspired to shield them from the gospel, from Christ’s gentle invitation. How can they believe unless they hear?

I do not have to tell those who HAVE accepted that invitation some time in their lives, who know the life-changing and soul-cleansing New Life offered by Jesus, that the day they made that decision is the most important day of their lives. We have the knowledge that “our lives,” after that encounter with the risen Savior, means eternity, not just the days we shuffle around here.

And the second most important day in someone’s life, although it is of course the other side of the same metaphorical and significant coin, would be the day a person rejects Christ. But… just as consequential.

One might say that people can’t be accountable for things they have not heard; and we have agreed that this unlikely scenario is possible in our secular society. It might be the case that people have heard sermons, but sermons that encourage people to, say, be nice to others… and not about the crisis of sin and rebellion, and the fatality of separation from the Savior. Very possible.

But at some time, I believe the Holy Spirit will arrange events so that every person at least one time hears the simple message of the Messiah, and the challenge of the Cross. And will have the opportunity to open ears, mind, and heart. Ignorance is not bliss; ignorance, one Day, will not be an excuse.

It might be a word of a friend. It might be a stray gospel song or random TV preacher. It might be messages like this. Maybe you are reading this by “accident”; maybe a friend has forwarded it to you. But by any of these happenstances, you can no longer, ever, say that you never really heard the gospel explained to you. The personal invitation from the Lover of your Soul –

There is one God, creator of the universe; who always was and always will be. He created vast domains of the heavens, yet counts the hairs on your head.

In love He created the human race and our bountiful earth. In love He granted humankind free will; and we all have gone astray. We rebel, we sin, we think our puny selves sufficient; and that grieves God.

Through His inspiration, in writings and through prophets, He has offered rules of conduct; He delivered miracles, chastisements and blessings; and yet His children sin. We all have gone our own way, and God, not having created robots, grieved.

As only an awesome God would do, He emptied Himself and became human, walking amongst us and posterity, sharing Truth, showing His power by miracles, and showering us with His love through teaching and by example. He was incarnate so we might be assured that He knows our suffering and sorrows. He offers the mere acknowledgement of Him to be our path to reconciliation. That is what God yearns for in us.

Because He is so holy, and we are sinners, we cannot otherwise be reconciled. How can we approach the presence of One so holy, except, once offered, through justification, by faith, in Jesus? When – true to form for humankind – the Christ was once again rejected and was betrayed, tortured, and put to death, prophecy was fulfilled. But at that turning-point of history, Christ overcame death and the grave, and rose from the dead.

Miracle of His many miracles, He lived again, ministered and preached, all this in ways that His contemporary skeptics reported and no other founder of another religion can claim. Confirming His divinity, this man born of a virgin then ascended bodily to Heaven, where He lives today, interceding for the believers. The blood He shed at Calvary is what paid for our sins that separated us from God.

We are “covered in the Blood,” so that when God sees us, he no longer sees rebellious children, but the precious blood sacrifice of His Son. We form the Blood-bought church. Too special for you to treat with indifference.

And in the place of Jesus on earth, the third incarnation of God was sent to live in every believer’s heart. The Holy Spirit empowers, inspires, and encourages Christians today. Healings; deliverance from sin and addictions; restoration of relationships; new beginnings – these are what the Holy Spirit accomplishes. I have been the recipient of the born-again experience. So have millions. So can you be.

So… there. If this is the first time you have read the Gospel message, or maybe the first time you have heard it so simply reduced, you cannot claim, when your life on earth is judged, that “you never knew.”

You can say the Bible is a book of fairy tales… you can say that man created God and not that God created man… you can say that Jesus never lived or that the Resurrection was a plot… you can say that billions of believers are deceived and have been, for 2000 years… you can wrestle with the fact that uncountable Christ-followers have known the Truth so completely that they have endured torture and death, refusing to deny His existence… you can spend sleepless nights trying to comprehend how this or that person’s life has been amazingly transformed… you will scoff, perhaps, at displays of love and sacrifice that seem crazy to you… you might still think that you know better than this “God” and the preponderance of history and the evidence in writings and cathedrals and chapels and art and music and in changed lives. Transformed natures. New births. Joy unspeakable.

… but you cannot claim that you have never heard the message of the Gospel, the Good News. The details will follow later – when you accept Christ, you become hungry and thirsty for them, no worries. But to believe Jesus was the Son of God, and that God raised Him from the dead: believe it in your heart, and confess it with your mouth (in a prayer; to a friend) and you have satisfactorily accepted God’s simple invitation.

God honors sincere seeking, and never lets the yearning prayer of a hungry soul go unanswered. In the midst of a sinful and secular society, a culture of cold churches, people can still move on this or any day from the second most important day of their lives (as dangerous as rejecting Christ is) to feeling like they have arrived at that most important day. Welcome home.

+ + +

The first time in almost six years of Monday Morning Music Ministry that we share a video from Family Worship Center, but this infectious performance by Nancy Harmon of her classic gospel song says it all about the role of Christ’s shed blood in our salvation:

Click: The Blood-Bought Church

A Clash of (Surprising) Civilizations

3-16-15

I have begun reading “A Chronicle Of the Crusades,” a massive 15th-century illuminated manuscript – in translation, believe me – originally titled “Les Passages d’Outremer.” I am interested in history of all eras and all places, so this is not exactly required reading. However, I am also prompted by President Obama’s recent scolding of Christians to “get off their high horses” and realize that many awful acts were committed “in the name of Christ,” citing the crusades of a thousand years ago; and not mentioning atrocities committed by radical Moslems a thousand years ago or – famously – last week either.

It is not mere (and common) self-loathing of Christians and whites to assume that the Crusades were birthed and maintained in Christian brutality, blood lust, and racism. Aggressive educators and supine defenders of our faith have transformed this contention into a “fact of history” – despite its substance being very much in dispute. Rather, historical facts, if they shall become the subtext of our identity and rationale for today’s policies, must be dusted off and honestly viewed.

Christianity had “holy sites,” associated with the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Islam, a religion founded centuries subsequent to Christianity, determined to seize lands and sites, sometimes desecrating them. Christians sought to restore ownership, if not management, of holy places in the “Holy Land.” Its center of gravity having shifted northward and westward, Christian expeditions were launched to that end. In succeeding campaigns, there were battles, sieges, pillaging, many deaths, and uncountable examples of bravery and brutality on both sides, on all sides.

It is rather useless, and perhaps intentionlly subversive toward a different agenda, to re-ignite those flames of passion. Yet it is being done, and not only by our president. Wars frequently are bad enough in their first incarnations, without declaring and waging them anew. Perhaps the huge book on my lap will teach me some new things, even though, yes, I realize that it was written by Europeans.

I want to pause for a moment, however, over a larger picture – the illuminated manuscript, as it were, of Western Civilization before and after the Crusades, and what once was rightly called Christendom.

People use the phrase “the barbarians are at the gates,” applying it to everything from video games to the corporate history of Nabisco to the threats posed by ISIS. Oddly, there is no consensus on the origin of the tocsin “at the gates!” but it seems that Barbarians, generally, were called such by the cultured civilizations of Athens and Rome based on the invading tribes’ purportedly unintelligible language: an approximation of “ba-ba-ba” morphed into “barbarian.” Today, alarmists use the phrase because they feel threatened by forces attacking the virtual gates of our culture.

Alarmists legitimately can be alarmed by legitimate threats, just as paranoiacs sometimes DO have people stalking them. Nevertheless the dominant thrust of Western Christianity’s contemporary cultural attitude is that the so-called challenges to our traditions and heritage are real… but are not threats.

Cultural rebels are in command. Anarchists and nihilists ironically are setting many of the rules in society. “The end of history” has happened: the postulation of Francis Fukuyama that millennia of the world’s cultural traditions have been up-ended, enabling disaster or, at best, an unknown new system. Just as with Nietzsche’s “God is dead” – when a culture no longer recognizes God, He is dead to that culture’s life. “How shall we then live?” was the question asked by Francis Schaeffer in a monumental study almost 40 years ago. It is a question posed by philosophers since Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle… but never losing its relevance. Or, today, its urgency.

The difference today is the exquisite and apocalyptic precipice upon which we teeter. A death-struggle in the twilight of a once-great civilization. Barbarians are past the gates; they have been welcomed, they live amongst us; they are A-list celebrities.

I am not singling out Hollywood, but our Barbarian culture. We have willingly celebrated barbarism. Sometimes this suicidal syndrome is called anti-intellectualism, but is far deeper, of far more serious consequences. It threatens destruction from which survival is impossible. The contemporary morals and mores of Western Christianity (often masquerading as the new sacraments of “tolerance” and “lifestyle choices”) are nothing more or less than the poisoning of our culture’s well.

Our society’s rejection of God, denial of Christ’s divinity and teachings, and demonization of our Western heritage, is not a minor and enlightened bend in the road of progress. It is a complete U-turn, back to… barbarism.

Hilaire Belloc wrote of the barbarian that he “hopes – and that is the mark of him – that he can have his cake and eat it too. He will consume what civilization has slowly produced after generations of selection and effort, but he will not be at pains to replace such goods, nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that has brought them into being.

“Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is ever marveling that civilization should have offended him with priests and soldiers…. In a word, the barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this: that he cannot [build anything]; he can befog and destroy, but he cannot sustain; and of every barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilization, exactly this has been true.

“We sit by and watch the barbarian. We tolerate him in the long stretches of peace, we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence; his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creed refreshes us; we laugh.

“But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond, and on these faces there are no smiles.”

We will revisit this theme, because it has more aspects and should engage us in many ways. But for the moment – to return to those barbarians at the gates of Western Christianity, Western Civilization – the barbarians have overtaken our culture, either incorporating themselves or coldly obliterating us and what we hold precious.

The historian Arnold Toynbee observed that civilizations seldom die from invasions (gates and barbarians notwithstanding) but by suicide. In that sense the ghastly Clash of Civilizations is not so much prompted by Communist states or Islamic terrorists or extremists who work to do us harm. It is the clash of traditional Christianity versus the barbarism of modern Christianity and post-modernism. Western Civilization has lost that clash of values.

+ + +

The Litany of St. James, written in the 4th century, sung by Cynthia Clawson.

Click: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

A Man Who Knows the Valley of the Shadow

3-9-15

“Friends have wondered if I get mad at God for not healing me. Um, sorry, but He’s been healing me since the day I accepted His forgiveness 42 years ago. He has healed bad habits, thoughts, behaviors – a MOUNTAIN of ugliness in me over the years. How can I question how He works in my life now? I am blessed WAY beyond what I deserve. A few times lately I’ve actually learned to thank God for this illness. He has worked in me more than ever before.”

Those are words written by my friend Mike Atkinson of San Diego. He is on the verge of Stage 5 kidney failure, preparing these very days for dialysis that will keep him alive until he can receive a kidney transplant. I am concerned for Mike as a brother in Christ, but also because my late wife received a kidney transplant at a critical time of need, so I can relate on several levels. (Hers was a 17-year health and success story.)

Readers can learn about some health questions, but also be inspired by Mike’s faithful responses. (His regular e-mail posts, “Mikey’s Funnies,” recommended as one of our links, confirm the sense of humor that helps sustain him.) Here are excerpts from his profile in Refreshed Magazine:

Is this your first health crisis? Yes, at least the first serious one.

What is the prognosis? Kidney failure is imminent. Once that happens I will start peritoneal dialysis, a home version that will do the business my kidneys no longer do – cleaning out toxins and water from my body. Basically dialysis will keep me alive until I can get a kidney transplant. I am blessed in that many people have offered to be donors. I am humbled.

How are you coping during this trial? Like a roller coaster. Obviously any physical ailments come with their share of emotional struggles. Since I’ve never dealt with health problems like this, I’ve run the gamut of emotions. I love King David, since he’s a man after God’s own heart. When you read his psalms, you see him yell and wail at the almighty God, and then ultimately fall in the loving arms of his Heavenly Father. He really knew how to process tough stuff; a great model for everyday life.

What are your fears?
That I won’t qualify for the new kidney or if I am that the transplant won’t take or it won’t last long, in case the disease attacks it as well. A big question mark when looking forward. I read an article recently that said everyone gets healed: Medically, divinely, or by going “home.” I’m ready for any of those options. An adage like “I don’t know the future but I know Who holds the future” really becomes real in these situations.

Was there a specific moment you recall when you questioned God? And if so, how did you work through it? Not really. Not because I’m any kinda SuperSaint, but because I believe in His sovereignty. I live by the motto, “Accept the reality. Hope for the Divine.”

What advice would you give to another person going through a similar journey?
While physical ailments can bring you down, there are some things that I’ve learned that help remind me that I’m a human and not a blob in a recliner:

Laugh. It is the best medicine. Whatever makes you laugh, return to it often.

Keep your hobbies. The weakness from the disease doesn’t let me do everything I need to with my plumerias in the yard, but I do what I can. And that brings me much pleasure. [Mike is an award-winning grower of the exotic Hawaiian flower, and has a sign in his garden that reads, “Gardening is cheaper than therapy.”]

Find community. For me it has been a couple groups on Facebook of folks around the world with this same disease. It really helps to converse with others going through the same things I am.

Go to church. Every word of every song and sermon has taken on new meaning for me, especially the new-found depth in our classic hymns (Just keep the Kleenex close). God has used all that to bring me strength when I needed it.

Embrace help. I’ve learned that people want to help. And as hard as it is to accept it, I realize that by accepting it I’m allowing God to bless them.

Get outside. I need that. Makes me feel human again.

Get outside yourself. I found I retreated into myself at times – getting too self-focused. It’s very easy to do with a chronic illness. But I don’t read anywhere in the Bible that people with chronic illness get a pass on serving others. We understand the power of encouraging, serving, caring for others, but I’ve learned that to do all that from a place of weakness is real power. God wants to live in our weakness. The best way I’ve found is being the face of Christ to the hundreds of medical personnel I’ve met in the last year. They don’t get joy from their patients very much, so I can bring some into their lives by relying on God’s joy and hope.

Thank God. Every night when my head hits the pillow, I force myself to thank God. No matter how bad the day may have been, it should could have been worse.

What have you learned about your faith during your journey? That faith alone can’t always carry you through the deepest valleys. We are human after all. You need others who can help and even carry you. That’s so hard for me to accept, but I’ve lived that this last year many times.

Some days I just felt like #lifesux. This illness and the related side effects has brought a lot of loss in the last year – energy, mental abilities, strength, activities, fave foods and drinks, and more; and now struggling with the realization that I will be kept alive by a machine (dialysis).

What have you learned about your family during your journey? That I can’t do this without them. Just being with them is fuel for life. Even though my grandkids wear me out, it’s worth every precious ounce of energy. My family’s love and support has carried me many times this past year. I’ve also learned that my family was bigger than I thought, with friends, Bible studies, and churches all around the world praying for me. The “great cloud of witnesses” has taken on a whole new meaning. Just blows me away.

What have you learned about God during your journey?
That He is still God. He doesn’t promise us escape from hard times. He promises to be with us, to walk with us through the dark nights of the soul. Good Christians die every day; they lose their homes; they lose their jobs. God is not a magic potion to get us out of life’s challenges. He wants to be our crutch, so we can lean on Him daily.

Let me finish by saying that just because I may have communicated these views does not mean I live them – or even believe them – all the time. As I said it’s a roller coaster, and God has a lot more work to do on me.

+ + +

Mike Atkinson and I worked together (at least when the bosses were watching) at Youth Specialties. Today he is Chairman, Board of Trustees, San Diego Youth For Christ. Mike’s daily blast of wholesome humor is found at Mikeys Funnies. Subscribe! And read the full article about Mike in the current issue of Refreshed magazine

Click: Abide with Me

Hard Times

3-2-15

In a recent visit here we discussed Bad Things that inevitably dot the path of our life’s walk. Sometimes more like speed bumps, roadblocks, or outright broken bridges, that we encounter when we have no alternative but to proceed. The reality of bad things, versus the sometimes-illusory mantra about the “God thing,” if you remember our thoughts.

There have been many reactions to that theme, with suggestions to broaden our discussion to Hard Times – those moments in a nation’s history, or our own, when events conspire to beat us down. Distract us. Threaten to demoralize us. But, Christians, this is for you: …never to defeat us. We can only do that to ourselves.

Stephen Foster was a songwriter, perhaps America’s greatest. He lived from 1826 to 1864. He was born on July 4, on the exact 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; and he died, penniless and fraught with care, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the middle of the Civil War. During his short life, he wrote some of the most popular music ever listened to and sung in these United States.

Many of his songs live today. For a while they were considered moldy or politically incorrect or merely light-weight, but they endure because of their solid, not diaphanous, sentimentality; and their hauntingly beautiful melodies. You know many. They were generally of three categories: Parlor Songs (popular music of many themes); minstrel songs (sympathetic songs inspired by black folk tunes, although Foster never lived in the South); and gospel songs —

Oh! Susanna; Nelly Bly; Camptown Races; Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon the Swanee River); Old Dog Tray; My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair; Hard Times Come Again No More; and Old Black Joe. Foster wrote more than a hundred songs, maybe hundreds; he gave many away. Or he sold the rights for a few dollars. Or he let other people take credit for his compositions. His was a life of penury. He battled alcohol addiction in his last years, after his wife left him. He died of a fall in his tenement bathroom, much loved but much beset.

He experienced hard times yet by all accounts never despaired, always of a cheery and trusting disposition. Hard times didn’t get him down – or not for long – and one of his most enduring songs, if not most famous, is “Hard Times Come Again No More.” It is extremely popular in Ireland, so much so that some people think Foster was Irish. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples, and Nanci Griffith have made it part of their standard playlists.

Its lyrics are more descriptive than pessimistic, and more resigned than hopeful. Yet the prayerful “come again no more” weakly shakes a fist at the hard times we all encounter:

“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, While we all sup sorrow with the poor; There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears; Oh! Hard times come again no more.

“There’s a pale, drooping maiden who toils her life away, With a worn heart whose better days are o’er: Though her voice would be merry, ‘tis sighing all the day, Oh! Hard times come again no more.

“‘Tis the song, the sigh, of the weary: Hard Times, hard times, come again no more. Many days you have lingered around my cabin door; Oh! Hard times come again no more.”

These lyrics are at the beginning, not the conclusion, of our meditation on hard times. America is going through Hard Times right now.

I do not refer specifically to the wave of terrorism filling our headlines and TV screens… and maybe, many think, on our doorsteps soon. I do not refer specifically to the fragility of a high-unemployment economy, of the many families living paycheck-to-paycheck. I do not refer to the social cancers of crime, addiction, illegitimacy, illiteracy, abuse – I do not refer to these specifically or even in a group. But I DO refer to all these things as part of our national crisis.

America has been fond, or full of pride, in pointing to statistics that tell us, despite stagnant wages or numbers of people on welfare, that we are better off than many nations around the world. And that our poorest and least educated are still living well, compared to previous eras, other cultures.

These statistics are delusional, self-swindling nonsense. Many nations are racing past the United States in measures of comfort, literacy, proficiency in science and math, health, safety, security, and contentment. These criteria are important, but not essential, yardsticks of a society’s value; or an individual’s.

The United States of America has squandered its inheritance. What once made us rich in these areas, in themselves, and relative to history and other countries – the spiritual values – have been wasted. They are more than unfashionable: our government, our establishment, our media, our educational and legal systems maintain that they are somewhere between irrelevant and despicable.

And those of us who have predicted a social breakdown if we surrender our standards and coddle the enemies of our heritage… we have been proven correct. But that is no comfort.

When people hear the phrase “Hard Times,” they often think of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Indeed times were tough; life was miserable for years for multiple millions. Yet I believe the nation was stronger, morally, and more content overall, than in our recent “prosperous” times. Does anyone disagree?

A world war immediately followed the Great Depression, and virtually every citizen mobilized at home or in uniform, and made unbelievable sacrifices. Do we “have it in ourselves” to respond in that way if another true world war were thrust upon us? Or would selfishness, disagreements, indolence, jealousies, illusory “rights,” and such factors interfere with national unity?

Surely our erstwhile unity has evaporated in these times when it should have been easier to achieve, replaced by the institutionalization of that socially centrifugal force, “diversity.”

Attributed to Georges Clemenceau – but so correct that many vie for authorship – is the observation that America is the only nation in history that miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.

There was an in-between period, of course. When lands and communities were established in the name of Christ, and operated according to biblical principles. When constitutions and laws codified the basic ideas of responsibility and personal liberty. When immigrants were welcomed, according to rules; and immigrants willingly abided by those rules. When horrible flaws like slavery were corrected despite the blood and angst to see it through. When the population was able to find common cause in confronting the contradictions of social and industrial progress; and fighting common enemies.

But we lost our way. We have lost our way. We lost our faith, after losing our faiths by the wayside. We lost self-confidence. We became more concerned with gaining dubious friends than defeating real enemies. We became happier to compromise than to convince. Our priority has become not to offend those who are determined to be offended, instead of standing for something – anything. We pretend that our hypocrisy and weakness will bring security, all the while knowing, deep down, that we are only buying a nervous, temporary security for ourselves… and certain, miserable destruction upon our children.

We can sing the beautiful, haunting Stephen Foster song from the 1850s, “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” knowing that it brought comfort in those troubled times. But for us, in the 21st century, I have the feeling we can hear it only as a musty museum-piece, and nothing more.

+ + +

Click: Hard Times, Come Again No More
Another version, if you, like me, cannot get enough of this great parlor song:

Hard Times

“It’s a God Thing”… Isn’t It?

2-23-15

All the time, all the time, I hear the phrase, “It’s a God thing.” And, frankly, I dislike it — because half the time people are explaining (that is to say, NOT explaining) horrible things. Explaining away, as it were. Sometimes it is not a “God thing”; sometimes it’s a Satan thing.

“Why? Why?” my kids, and friends I pray for, and strangers, would ask, as kids and friends have asked throughout history (not always of me). “Why me?” “How can a God who loves me…”; “How could a loving God…” Even skeptics and agnostics and atheists pose that question; in fact it is a question with which they frequently begin their arguments. Well, there is sin in the world. It’s all very clear. Mosquitoes suck, and so do a lot of other things. The Bible calls life a vale (valley) of tears. God DID promise a time free of care and a place of perfection – Heaven.

Until then, He promised comfort, wisdom, acceptance, encouragement, and faith. Not a bad group of second-choices. Especially when promised by the Lord of the Universe. Especially since His plan for us provided the Holy Spirit to deliver comfort. Thou shalt not whine.

…I shalt not whine; we shalt not whine. As with all my messages, and all proper sermons, this is directed at myself as well as anyone with eyes or ears. So you may eavesdrop.

Bad things happen to nations and to individuals. We need only the most cursory glances at recent headlines to know what the world is experiencing: wars and rumors of wars; natural disasters; slavery; genocide; revived practices of barbarity. We see that religions are suffering prejudice, oppression, and persecution; innocents are murdered in the name of faith, and people die for their faith.

Individuals no less than nations, races, and institutions are experiencing bad things. I do not think that matters are especially worse than at other times in history – or better, either – but, as is natural, for a spell I have been more aware of bad things endured and sustained by family, friends, and self. Sometimes I think a definition of “Happiness” is when, by circumstance, we merely are less aware of the distress of others.

This is not gloomy pessimism; it is reality. I think it is consistent with God’s nature, not to cause suffering, but occasionally to allow it – for a variety of spiritual reasons. The poor we will have with us, so we should cultivate charitable impulses in response. People with spiritual needs cross our paths so that we might comfort them. We are sensitized to the horrors of war, in order that we have clarity to do battle for righteousness and peace. And we, ourselves, might suffer anguish, insecurity, or even doubt, until we are receptive to the ministrations of friends. That we see the Jesus in each other.

My heart has fairly been breaking lately for people in my immediate circle who experience anguish in various forms, from various sources. A friend from church grows progressively sicker, and in pain, and her doctors are unable to determine a cause, much less a cure. A friend’s husband has had a heart transplant and another friend is listed for a kidney transplant. My wife went through both: so if I cannot minister better, at least I can pray more wisely; or at least join that mystical bond of fellowship that sufferers share.

My sister, after losing her daughter, having her apartment ruined by Hurricane Sandy, recently escaped the new apartment’s ruination by fire… and now she has been given a short prognosis for life, several serious illnesses having overtaken her. A dear friend’s grandson just attempted suicide. Another close friend has had some professional frustrations and economic hardship, on top of family distress. Usually an encourager, my friend feels like Bad Things are piled on his plate, not only professionally and financially, but emotionally and spiritually.

Nevertheless, while all these circumstances might not be strictly “God things,” God can work through circumstances when we let Him.

That is the exegesis of Romans 8:28 – “All things work for good to those who love God and are called according to His purposes.” This doesn’t mean that all things ARE good. Surely, they are not. But it is our job to turn the bedevilments of Bad Things around on their source, to MAKE them “God things,” and slay those dragons. And to accept wisdom and comfort from, often, unexpected places. My friend confessed to finding comfort in the companionship of another friend who in turn said, no doubt compassionately, that he would be given his space. So to speak. But then, almost immediately, a virtual acquaintance appeared and assumed a burden of caring and sharing.

Is that a “God thing,” or a “Life thing”? Neither… if we are not open to such things in the first place. George Eliot wrote: “What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined… to strengthen each other… to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories.”

To finish the look at Romans 8:28, its mystery becomes a reality when every word is appreciated. “All things work for good…” We have noted that this does not say that all things are good. They WORK for good.

For whom? “To those who love God…” Let us whisper a prayer of thanks that God is not a dispenser of fortune-cookie promises – worthless pastries. We should love and honor God, surely not a burden but a sweet privilege.

How will this work in our lives? “… and are called…” This is the conversation with God; answered prayer; His leading; the inspirations of the Holy Spirit as promised. We will know that we know that we know His call on our lives when we earnestly seek Him.

What is our confirmation? “… called according to His purposes.” We know that God cannot contradict Himself, either in promises or what He allows for us. A God we can know, never changing or causing doubt, is a solid rock on which we can stand.

Before we know it, problems shrink, and we realize the blessings we have, and can expect. Our perspectives change; we no longer see through a glass darkly. Old things are made new. All things work together for good. Bad things become good things; “God things” we see, indeed, as good things. We love God, and accept the call, according to His purposes.

+ + +

Nearer, My God, To Thee

Train Up a Child… In Obama’s America

1-26-15

After President Obama’s recent State of the Union address he spent an hour being interviewed. As usual he handpicked the questioners, but they were not of the predictable softball corps of friendly journalists. He chose three internet blog hosts of irreverent, even absurdist sites, like one girl with green lipstick famous for filling her bathtub full of milk and Fruit Loops and eating breakfast. His hour of questions, not surprisingly, were either banal, as were his replies, or loopy. Not Fruit Loopy: just weird, random, irrelevant.

His defenders claim that the President was going where the votes are, or will be, and “connecting” to young people. By implication his allocation of time and attention is clear. This same month he declined to be present at an anti-terrorism event in Paris that virtually all other major world leaders attended; and refused to meet the Prime Minister of Israel who soon will visit Washington. The President wants to be seen, rather, with semi-literate, foul-mouthed internet curiosities.

A sharp contrast for me was an invitation I received, this past week, to address a group of home-school students several towns away from where I live. Polite, well-dressed, courteous, curious, thoughtful. Many of them introduced themselves as they filed in; most thanked me afterward; all sent written appreciation of my talk. The Q&A period was sincere and lively.

If the president had invited three such students to interview him, or to have a televised conversation, how much better a picture of young America would that have been?

What better encouragement for other youngsters to be intellectually curious and determined to face the questions of society?

Could there have been a higher standard, a better example, for our culture – to set a bar of self-respect, to show other kids, adult citizens… to demonstrate his own self-respect?

What kind of leader trolls the lowest common denominators of our culture to… lead? to be an example? to create a legacy? (I am tempted to say that he doesn’t have a legacy to stand on.) Perhaps, as with Trayvon Martin, the internet’s GloZell reminded Obama of one of his daughters.

Such actions by our leaders today cannot be seen as infrequent occurrences, or in vacuums. By the way, I should rather more precisely say, our celebrities, not “leaders,” because leadership today is an endangered species in the United States and Western Civilization. As the business leader and possible presidential candidate Carly Fiorina pointed out this weekend at the Freedom Summit, America has an abundance of people who consider themselves managers… but has very few real leaders.

For all the aggressive acts by prominent people in politics and popular culture that leave traditionalists astonished, and make responsible citizens worry for the future, the bad things that plague us today could not happen if the culture itself neither created the degenerate conditions, nor was not ready for even more downward momentum.

Maggots generally eat away at organisms that have first begun to rot. It is a rule of nature that things generally do not decay until they have been neglected, or rust sets in, or decomposition has been introduced and tolerated. And societies never spontaneously regenerate. Rather, the law of civilization and decay ends in disintegration, putrefaction, and death.

At the other end of the spectrum, in reality as well as metaphor, is a strong organism: healthy, upright, long-lasting. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” it says in Proverbs 22:6.
 
So when Christians and patriots and traditionalists despair, we should resist the temptation to blame, too much, the representatives we identify as agents of decline. That would be a president whose small acts, like the demeaning love-fest with YouTubers, to substantial decisions like inaction against Islamic terrorism or defending persecuted Christians around the world. And politicians and judges who enable the advance of abortion and drugs. And the education monolith that presumes to know better than parents what values to instill in children. And the Hydra-headed entertainment monster that seductively inculcates destructive standards of violence, sex, ethics, and civility.

Our complaints cannot be laid totally at their feet, because, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault… is in ourselves. We let our guard down. And we tolerate the things we now claim to despise.

But. Before we leave, we can remind ourselves of a few pertinent Bible verses about leadership, and about evil or false leaders:

“For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure” (Proverbs 11:14).

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).

“Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (I Timothy 3:1-3).

“Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (II Timothy 3:1-17).

Let us return to the stark contrast I experienced this week: President Obama’s portrayal of the rising generations of Americans, exemplified by the green-lipped Fruit Loop bather; and the young citizens I met in a home-school event.

The students I met stayed my tendency toward pessimism about this nation. God help us, that a generation, even a remnant, might arise and be the leaders we need.

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (II Chronicles 7:14). Incidentally — or not so incidentally, speaking of contrasts — this verse was Ronald Reagan’s favorite Bible verse. His mother’s Bible, with this verse underlined and with a margin notation, is where Reagan placed his hand when he took the oath of office as President.

+ + +

An old American folk-gospel song aurally illustrates this essay. The plaintive song is sung by the Swedish singer Jill Johnson, who has mastered American folk and rural music, in Uppsala.

Click: Calling My Children Home

No Man Can Tame the Tongue

How many terrorist victims were there in the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices this morning? Before you scramble for the latest numbers, the answer is: None.

Cartoonists, writers, and security people were murder victims, not terrorism victims. The distinction is important. The victims of terrorism are citizens of Paris; Christians, Jews, and secularists throughout Paris, France, Europe, and the West; and cartoonists, satirists, thinking people.

Never again, at least for years to come, will average people be able to think skeptically, critically, humorously, even heretically, without looking over our shoulders even in some small way. That is the definition of terrorism, to instill fear and alter our lives.

Charlie Hebdo (Weekly) is a newspaper that is the second incarnation of the comics magazine Charlie Mensuel (Monthly), a magazine named in honor of Charlie Brown. Its original version was satirical but also a reprint vehicle for comic strips, including from the U.S., in the manner of Linus, Tintin, and other character-named European monthlies. In its current version it is aggressively left-wing and had been the object of arson attacks, government censorship, and concomitant success as a humorous, iconoclastic institution.

As a former cartoonist and a publisher and writer who has worked with the European comics industry, I knew two of the cartoonists who were murdered in the Charlie Hebdo offices, Georges Wolinski and Jean Cabut. Amiable fellows — more than amiable; like most cartoonists, personally merry and friendly — they were left-wing and perhaps a bit nihilist. They, and their paper, were equal-opportunity intellectual anarchists: all religions received savage treatment. There were far more attacks on Christianity than on Islam; many more personal and insulting depictions of clergy, and of Mary, God, and Jesus.

This is not to excuse or mischaracterize their work; they never asked for nor expected such defense. Wolinski also scripted a series of pornographic comics, so I seldom was in sympathy with any of their work. Properly regarding satire as free speech; that is, written words and drawings are as of spoken words, we remember that James 3:8 says, “The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”

When the Bible tells us that, it is a warning to devout believers, but also a key to discerning the nature of attacks, harmful speech, and even satire. But after millennia of investing in, and living in, democratic cultures, we are also committed to the dictum misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Liberals and conservatives are quick to quote Voltaire, but often are absent when push comes to shove. Radio’s Michael Savage was banned from travel to the United Kingdom because he called terrorists “Islamo-Fascists.” Not only did the federal government fail to protest, but fellow conservatives, especially the prominent in media, were relatively silent about his case. The British historian David Irving has told me about his incarceration in solitary confinement for two years in Austria because he entered the country years after he spoke there, questioning not the fact but the numbers of people slaughtered during World War II. No governments and few fellow historians protested the violation of free speech, freedom of opinion, in his case. In countries like Canada, Australia, and Germany it is against the law to voice opinions on this subject; yet the West deplores Muslim objections to criticism of the Prophet.

Nativists, xenophobes, and cultural traditionalists have been rising in Europe in recent years. In Austria and Germany (some would say, predictably) but also in countries like Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark. We see rallies, movements, and laws that are anti-immigrant and, because of the statistics, less religious-oriented than economic, social, and cultural.

In a perfect world, Christians would not mirror the intolerance of Muslim extremists. In a perfect world we would reach the lost, convert them by love, and work toward St. Augustine’s “City of God” wherein few are motivated to commit such acts.

We are called to love, but embracing suicide, even cultural suicide by a thousand accelerating concessions and surrenders, cannot be so described.

Welcome to MMMM!

A site for sore hearts -- spiritual encouragement, insights, the Word, and great music!

categories

About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More